When your table hosts a divided America

by Dietrich Gruen, Bridge Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus

Engaging controversial issues from the pulpit is difficult for me, but so is the dilemma faced by many at the dinner table, post-election.  Our problem and opportunity are how to talk politics with family and friends who disagree on today’s political flash points.  To help in that regard, I shall share wisdom gleaned from several bloggers, family, and holy scripture.

First, to graciously discuss hot topics, get permission to go deeper.  When friends & family gather at the table for Thanksgiving or Christmas, keep the food hot and the rhetoric cool.  IF more heat than light is being generated, that’s time to back up, read the body language, and get permission to go further.  Once you have permission, agree on rules of engagement.  You could start with these:

Judge not, lest you also be judged.  With one finger pointing out blame, note the three fingers tucked and pointing back at you.  Ask yourself if you have moral authority to behave or speak as you do.  Or are you a hypocrite, capable of the same things? “Take the beam out of your own eye, so that you can see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

But for the grace of God, there go I.  In humility, admit you might be guilty of the same things if not for God’s redemptive work in your life.   With empathy, put yourself in the place of “the other”; but for God’s grace, you might have taken the same path.  As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  I also agree with the comic strip Pogo, who popularized wisdom from the Vietnam War: “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

With two ears and one mouth, listen twice as much as you speak.  That’s how my mom put it, citing the wisdom of the apostle James: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19).  Resist the temptation to fire off a quick retort or fighting words on social media.  Do not speak or “send” zingers which will only spark or stoke a fire you will regret.

Pray as a first, not last, resort. Yet here I am suggesting this as my fifth point.  You get the point: we should lead with prayer but rarely do.  Prayer has a calming effect, purifies motives, and provides a portal for God’s wisdom and Spirit from on high; thus, your response can be Spirit-driven.

Season your speech with salt.Salt is a preservative that will keep the civility in civil discourse.  Just as salt will make what you eat more palatable, even tasty, so also people will find it easier to hear and digest what you are saying, if you season it with gracious words and tone it down. Sometimes we must eat our own words.  Good reason to “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).

Consider your priorities, short-term and long-term.Would you rather be right and “win” the argument of the day, or be relational and win the friendship and trust that will lead to a greater good in the end?

Be more reasonable & logical, less angry & hateful.Passion in this era of rage needs a filter.  Recent TIMEmag essays (November 5 & 12) highlight this.  Research hot topics that concern you but do read arguments and newsfeeds from the opposition party; my four amigos/opponents exchange diverse blogs that enhance civil discourse.  Often, I realize that I don’t know enough and could be wrong.

Give glory to God.  Whatever the issue—abortion, immigration, race, healthcare, climate change, gun violence, or midterm elections—”you cannot please everyone,” so don’t even try. Whatever your response or position, “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31-33).

Leading a congregation that reflects a divided America is both an occupational hazard and ministry opportunity—a dilemma shared by other clergy in town.  Pray for your pastor in this regard.  If Jesus can lead and break bread with a team of rivals—tax collectors loyal to Rome, radicals bent on government overthrow—so can we. By God’s grace.

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