Last week was the conclusion of the Republican National Convention. The previous week concluded the Democratic National Convention.
Could we be any more polarized?
Wait. On second thought, please don’t answer that question.
These are such difficult times. COVID-19. Racism. Loss of jobs and threats to businesses going under. Schools starting up. Parents are now having to be their child’s primary teacher, while, if they are lucky, working from home. But what about the parents who have lost their jobs? What about the parents who are “essential workers” and have to leave their children at home?
Indeed, these are such stressful times.
And adding to those stresses is the political stress. We may be at a breaking point in American history. I am feeling the break inside of myself and in my relationships.
It has been a struggle, and I know it’s been a struggle for many of us. As a pastor, I get frequent emails and Facebook messages from people asking how to deal with family conflict and the polarization we frequently see on social media. Jesus says that sometimes the best thing we can do is shake the dust off our feet and move on. But before we get to that point, Jesus has some advice that might help. So, I’d like to give you my top three spiritual principles for dealing with political polarization.
1. Remember that Jesus warned us this would happen.
Jesus said to those who follow him,
Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (Luke 12:51-53).
Were you expecting those words from the “Prince of Peace”? They always shock me. Did Jesus really come to bring division? This is a notoriously difficult passage to interpret. Jesus’ primary mission was not to bring division. As the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus described his mission with these words, “
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Apparently, Jesus made some distinctions. He did not come to bring good news to “all lives.” His mission was to bring good news to specific lives – to poor lives. “But wait a minute!!!” some would yell at Jesus. “What about me! Don’t all lives matter?!?” Of course all lives matter. After all, Jesus tells us to love all people, including those we call our enemies. But Jesus lifted up a specific category of people – those who were oppressed and marginalized. And Jesus calls us to follow him. When we do, he warns us that it will cause division. But in reality, the world is already divided. Jesus’ mission names that division and calls us to the work of healing them. But in the process of naming the divisions, the divisions within our families might get even deeper. So be it, Jesus says. Expect that those divisions will rise. And once you expect those divisions, you can move through them without being too scandalized by them.
When we create a bond with the glue of hatred, we will soon be hating one another.
2. Even though Jesus says he came to cause divisions, he still hoped for reconciliation.
In fact, Jesus gave practical advice for how to seek reconciliation when you are in a conflict. He said,
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one (Matthew 18:15).
This advice is so important. Jesus knew how humans work. If another person does some mean to me, I usually don’t go to that person and point it out when the two of us are alone. I usually go to someone else and say, “Hey, So-And-So did this to me. What a jerk! Amiright?!?” And of course, that person will say to me, “Oh my goodness. I can’t believe So-And-So! What a jerk!” And thus I have solidified myself as the good guy and So-And-So is a total jerk.
But Jesus knew this was a form of scapegoating. Whenever we form a sense of unity with someone at the expense of another, we gain a sense of goodness. But it’s a false sense of goodness. It’s goodness by means of hate, by being against another. That sense of goodness is toxic. It spreads like fire. To use another metaphor, hate can become the glue that binds. But hate is uncontrollable. When we create a bond with the glue of hatred, we will soon be hating one another.
So Jesus teaches us to not go down that road. Instead of gossiping, go directly to the person in order to figure out your conflict together. Jesus continues in Matthew 18 to suggest that if you can’t figure it out between the two of you, you may need to bring in some other people to act as mediators. Give that a try. If it doesn’t work, then there’s another option …
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3. Sometimes you have to shake the dust off of your feet and move on.
In Matthew 10, Jesus tells his disciples that it’s time for them to go into the towns without him. So far, they’ve seen Jesus enacting his mission, but now it’s their turn to “proclaim the good news” and “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, [and] cast out demons.” But, as we discovered in the first point, this will cause division. Some people will that the sick don’t deserve to be cured because it’s their own fault that they are sick. Some will just be set in the old way of blaming the victim. Someone is a leper? Well, clearly they were hanging out with the wrong people. Someone is dead? Well, that black man clearly deserved to have that knee on his throat for eight minutes because … he had drugs in his system. It’s his own fault!
Indeed, Jesus advises us to talk directly with those folks. But here’s the thing: sometimes we can get stuck in an endless rivalry with them. And that endless rivalry becomes a distraction from the mission. So don’t get distracted. Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”
It’s important to know that Jesus gives us permission to move on. Sometimes the conflict and polarization is too much. You have permission to move on from a conversation. Sometimes politics is too much, too frustrating, and nothing you can say will change his mind. And nothing she can say to you will change your mind. And so you need to shake the dust off your feet from that topic. Move on to a new topic – talk about their childhood or their work or their parents or children or whatever else you can think about.
But sometimes even that isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to move on from that relationship. And so you have permission from Jesus to shake the dust off your feet and move on from that person. If you find yourself in that position, that’s a faithful response. Wish the person well as you move on.
Those are the top three ways I see Jesus help us deal with conflict. What are the best ways you have found to deal with conflict?