Difference and relationship

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, I visited a close family member who asked, “Can I talk to you about politics?  There aren’t any other Democrats I can talk to, and I’m just so curious…”

Uh oh. 

When Jen and I joined this church back in 2011, I prided myself in coming from an Evangelical background.  Back then I still attended an Evangelical seminary.  I liked to think of myself as a “bridge-builder.”  Not sure if that reads naïve or arrogant, (probably both) but I was certainly hopeful: I wanted to find a way to hang onto my faith and faith community-of-origin while stepping into a broader, more progressive practice of Christianity.

I’m not going to pretend I straddled that line well.  If you know me, you know I’m pretty hard on myself, so by extension, I have been pretty hard on Evangelicals because I identified with them for so long.  I used to say I grew up a conservative culture warrior, and when my theological pendulum (and worldview) swung the other way, I didn’t want to be the same kind of liberal culture warrior.  My hope was that there would be some kind of middle ground where we could talk about faith and culture, values and ethics.

I haven’t yet found that middle space, and that’s partly because I may not have the temperament for it.  I wish I did.  The last four years have even further diminished my capacity to sit in a space shared with ideological difference.

So as I proceeded with fear and trembling into a political conversation with family, I could feel my stomach rising up to my throat, my ears starting to burn, and my heart rate increasing.  Was it always this hard?  I don’t think so. This recent article from The Atlantic seems to echo: it hasn’t always been this bad.  As we venture into a post-Christian America, the vehemence – and violence – of religious rhetoric has continued to rise. 

…if secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed. As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.

The Atlantic

And why not?  Differentiation, fragmentation, and ultimately conflict pointed at the “other” all seem to be built into our human makeup.  In this Easter season, defined by the scapegoating of Jesus of Nazareth, Fr. Richard Rohr writes:

Human nature, when it is seeking power, wants either to play the victim or to create victims of others. In fact, the second follows from the first. Once we start feeling sorry for ourselves, we will soon find someone else to blame, accuse or attack—and with impunity… we compare, we copy, we compete, we conflict, we conspire, we condemn, and we crucify. If we do not recognize some variation of this pattern within ourselves and put an end to it in the early stages, it is almost inevitable. That is why spiritual teachers of any depth will always teach simplicity of lifestyle and freedom from the competitive power game, which is where it all begins. It is probably the only way out of the cycle of violence.

Fr. Richard Rohr

My conversation yesterday didn’t go particularly well, or particularly poorly.  I felt anxious and frustrated and tried to keep smiling and stay calm.  In the end, we maintained our relationship, convinced each other of nothing, and left with hugs and suppressed exasperation. 

Or does that make it an unqualified success?! 

Relationship was preserved.  Harsh words were not exchanged.  We listened to each other and were unmoved.  Is there a better outcome?  Sure: everything I said was so impactful – my arguments so cogent and persuasive – that everyone in the house immediately renounced their political affiliation, subscribed to Sojourners magazine, and took the framed photo of Mike Pence off the wall (okay, I made that part up).  But I have never, in my stubborn life, changed my beliefs or opinions because someone argued well.  In fact, the more people argue with me, the more insufferable and unmovable I become.  Years ago I had a blog with the tagline: “I used to pick fights with liberals… then I accidentally became one.”  How did I change my mind? 

Ooh, let me get post-Evangelical on you: How did the Holy Spirit change my mind?

The answer: people who loved me didn’t stop loving me when my beliefs conflicted with theirs.  My gay best friend, my feminist girlfriend, my college theatre cohort: they argued and rolled their eyes, but they loved me, and I knew they loved me, and eventually that love came into stark, concrete conflict with the comfortable, privileged worldview I had constructed into my early twenties.  The Holy Spirit spoke through that love, and eventually there was no way I could hear myself think anymore because a new truth had seeped into my pores.

I still wish I was a more patient person.  I wish my edges were a little smoother.  But I’m not going to live in a fantasy where “correcting” my neighbors (and family) is a solution to the tribalism and violence in our public discourse.  In an arms race, we either keep escalating, we make a treaty, or one side decides to unilaterally disarm. 

Jesus of Nazareth chose the most personally-dangerous option, walking willingly to the crucifixion.  God is still unilaterally disarmed, still waiting 2,000 years later, for us to follow Jesus’ lead.

  1. Oh, Peter. This is powerful and hit my in an ouchie spot (which is a very good thing). You’re speaking my language – and I could FEEL the angst of trying so hard to be all that grace and wisdom and articulation…and not quite having the impact I hoped for. Anyway, thank you for your heart and your spirit. ♥️


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