“How would you like to help with a political round table discussion at church?”
When I first read this email, I had many questions and a mixture of reactions.
I was flattered that someone thought I was knowledgeable enough to be a part of the planning, organizing, and execution of such a gathering.
I was curious as to what this actually would entail; what would be the goal of it?
I was also skeptical as to whether this could be pulled off without it being a disaster.
But after I discussed it with one of the guys in the group who was working on it, I decided that this was a worthy goal: could we help one another figure out how, in a particularly contentious political election cycle, to discuss and engage with those in our own church body who had differing opinions on various issues and candidates? Could we keep from destroying our church or our relationships in the process?
Also a bit scary.
As we met and hashed out the details, the plan grew more focused. But as we started publicizing the event at church, fears and misconceptions among our congregation arose.
“Are you going to tell me how I should vote?”
“Is this to tell us what the official church position is on all the issues?”
“I’m afraid if I come, I will end up not liking people that right now, I really like.”
“We’ve managed to avoid talking about political issues as a church for 20 years, and I’ve been proud of that. Why are you going to wreck that now?”
We explained what we were not going to be doing.
We were NOT going to tell anyone how to vote.
We were NOT going to elucidate an official church position (because there isn’t an “official position” for our church on political issues).
What we were going to do was listen to each other, look at things from others’ points of view, and be respectful and honest. And most of all, we were going to remember that our primary, most important, ultimate identifier is that we are brothers and sisters in Christ; our identity is found in Him. Our allegiance is to Him and His kingdom, and is over any other person, party, or issue.
In Jesus Outside the Lines, pastor and author Scott Sauls points out that Jesus chose both Simon the Zealot (someone who was actively working to overthrow the Roman government) and Matthew the tax collector (someone who was working hand in glove with the Roman government) to be part of his select group of followers—his disciples. This wasn’t a mistake or an accident. Jesus is showing us that people who are widely different on their political stances can still love each other, and be unified in Him.
If Jesus’ disciples could be this different politically, and live lovingly and peaceably together with Jesus, then we can, too.
We acknowledged our fears and our difficulties in doing that. We emphasized the importance of listening—truly listening—to others, and to not be formulating our rebuttal while the other person was still talking. In order to listen to one another effectively, we had to have the humility to admit that we might, just might, be wrong about something. We might not see the entire picture; someone else might have a valid, differing view on a subject. We looked at the need for empathy—to understand where the other person was coming from: their background, their experiences, and their current situation. All of these things affect how someone sees an issue.
As we worked on and practiced empathetic listening and humble discussion, we realized that we could have these conversations without raised voices or angry tears. We didn’t agree with everyone else; after all, we have a very politically diverse congregation–Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, independents (maybe even some anarchists :)). But we experienced face to face interaction that led to some softening of attitudes, some increased understanding of one another.
Face to face interaction, real conversations—that is where fears were alleviated; where even if our blood pressure started to rise, we could look at each other and remember, “This person is my sister. This person is my brother. I may not agree with them on this issue, but we share the same faith in Jesus.”
Before the round table discussions began, one of our elders said wryly, “I was here at the beginning of this church, so I figured I should be here to see its ending.”
We came. We discussed. We prayed.
We are all parts of the Body.
Our church is still standing.
And we are still friends.
May we continue to wrestle through difficult conversations with humility, honesty, grace, and love.