The current landscape of public discourse is no doubt full of landmines. In this divided time, even broaching the hot topics of our time can get you accused of being divisive. Sometimes it feels like, if you want to keep all your friends, it’s best to keep your mouth shut.
In an election year, whom we should cast our votes for is the fulcrum of our debates. But even more than the individual candidates, public discussion springs up about a whole host of issues including tax policy, immigration, abortion, gun regulations, criminal justice and policing, racial justice, healthcare, COVID-19 restrictions, and many others.
Some argue that the Church needs to avoid being political. I disagree entirely. When it comes to the issues that are affecting our neighborhoods, communities, and nation, the Church should be deeply involved.
We should be political. What we should not be is partisan.
The solution then isn’t to avoid divisive topics. What we need is to talk to each other, rather than at each other. On most issues, we’re faced with polarizing viewpoints that are turned into soundbites for the daily news. We need to engage in honest, messy, long form dialogue in order to find the truth that lies between one polar opposite and the other.
As Christians, since we possess both the wisdom of God (the Bible) and the Spirit of God (who dwells in and among us), we are uniquely equipped to wade into these waters. That being said, we still need to be aware of the pitfalls we want to avoid as we do so.
Here are 4 tips for discussing divisive topics with compassion, empathy, and conviction.
1. Be nuanced in your approach.
Important issues are often divisive because they are both important and complicated. And truth be told, most of us aren’t very good with nuance or holding complex ideas in tension with one another. We tend to think and argue in very simple, black and white talking points, even where issues of policy, historical context, and societal power structures are incredibly complex.
When it comes to economic equity, racial justice, healthcare, immigration laws, and dealing with a global pandemic, there are no easy answers. When we act as though there are, we only serve to reinforce our deadlock.
This problem has been exacerbated by living in a world of sound bites and short social media posts that go viral but lack context. In fact, the lack of context is typically what generates the shock value required to make something go viral. Likes and shares incentivize us to lack nuance.
But when it comes to disagreements over what’s best for large groups of people, we need to lean into reason and sound judgment more than we do sweeping statements.
Here’s what Paul says to some church leaders who couldn’t agree with each other.
“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone…And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5, 7)
As Paul pens these words, he’s addressing two church leaders, Euodia and Syntyche. We don’t know the exact nature of their disagreement, but it likely had to do with what the church needed to be doing to address a particular challenge.
So Paul urges them to be reasonable. Reason is nuanced. Reason is more than talking points. He also encourages them to be people of prayer (Philippians 4:6).
And he makes them a promise. If they are reasonable people who are also people of prayer, a kind of peace that surpasses understanding will guard their hearts and minds. The kind of peace he’s referring to is interpersonal.
2. Affirm truth wherever you find it in another person’s argument.
Part of the reason that we lack nuance is that we sometimes value side-taking more than we do truth-seeking.
When we see issues purely in terms of Left or Right, Red or Blue, Democrat or Republican, we typically end up zeroing in on facts that support our pre-established narrative rather than accepting information that may force us to construct a new one. This is what’s known as confirmation bias.
But if you’re a follower of Jesus, you are called to be a lover of truth. So we need to hold our arguments open-handedly. While we tend to think we have everything figured out, we need to be humble enough–and to love others enough–to be open to the possibility that we have something to learn.
This is how Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans.
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” (Romans 12:9)
Cast off what is evil and cling to what is good–wherever you find it. Sometimes there’s evil in your opinions that you didn’t realize was there. And maybe there’s some good in another person’s argument that you didn’t previously understand. Changing your view in light of that revelation is a good thing. We need to normalize that.
And I’m not saying that you need to completely depart from your tribe and join the “enemy.” But maybe there are more than two options on what to think about a given issue. And maybe those other people aren’t your enemy.
3. Remember that you’re talking to another person created in the image of God.
The idea that your political opposite isn’t your enemy is rooted in the idea that every person is created in the image of God. There is no room for Christians to demonize those who disagree with them–to question their intelligence, their patriotism, or the sincerity of their faith. All of these tactics dehumanize people and give us the excuse not to take them seriously.
We need to go to greater lengths to humanize one another. So my encouragement to you is this: give the people on the other side of the conversation the same benefit of the doubt you give yourself.
You’re pretty smart.
Maybe they are too.
You want the best for your family, your community, and your country.
Odds are, so do they.
You’re not perfect, but you’re trying your best.
So are a lot of others.
When you begin to consider the possibility of these truths, you stop thinking in terms of us versus them. Because what you begin to realize is that there is no us and them. There’s just us. And while we won’t always all agree, we still need to be for each other’s good.
4. Ask lots of questions and try to learn something new from those with whom you disagree.
A major component of having productive and fruitful conversations about difficult and divisive topics is having good listening skills. If you find yourself thinking, “I don’t understand how anybody, let alone another Christian could have that view,” then maybe you don’t fully understand the view. And that’s an opportunity to increase your level of understanding.
Sometimes, when you honestly can’t imagine having any common ground with people who hold certain viewpoints, that’s typically when you write them off. You stop being curious about them and what they have to say, and you simply become dead set on convincing them of your own view. Or you just disengage with them entirely.
According to the ancient wisdom of Solomon, this approach is downright foolish.
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (Proverbs 18:2)
The moment you think you have nothing else to learn from others, you become a fool. But if you fight that impulse to stick to your guns and choose instead to stay curious and ask questions, you’ll probably end up having fascinating conversations that give you insight that you didn’t have before.
The conversation might not change your view. But if you have enough of these kinds of conversations, your view will likely become a little more textured and nuanced, and ultimately more productive.
Be someone that others want to talk to about what’s going on.
In this season of life, there are probably a fair number of people that you avoid talking to at all costs. And it’s not so much because they have differing views from you. In fact, you might actually agree with them on certain points.
It’s the way that they hold their views that makes you not want to be around them.
And that’s because they’re abrasive, bullheaded, and overbearing. They don’t listen. They hardly even seem to take a breath from parroting their same talking points. Engaging them in a conversation never stimulates your mind or encourages your heart.
Be the opposite of that.
Be hopeful, empathetic, and quick to listen. Be the kind of person that’s always believing in the possibility of a better tomorrow. You don’t have to shy away from the important issues of our day in order to do that.
And if you combine all those things with a willingness to wade into the mess, you’ll be a unique voice. The kind of voice we all need. An agent of healing in troubled and divisive times.