Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.Colossians 4:6
First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.1 Timothy 2:1-4
Religion and politics—two subjects that we shouldn’t discuss in polite company. Allegedly.
And why? Presumably because all such discussion leads to heated, even divisive arguments.
And why does that happen? Again, presumably because each of us can have very strong opinions which we feel passionate about and are invested in—intellectually and emotionally.
To probe a little bit deeper still, this is, I think, because religion and politics concern some of the fundamental questions about who we are as human beings and what it means to be a community.
For example, when I think about politics and political parties, there are questions that come to mind. What is the role of government? How should power be divided between the federal government, provincial or state government, or local government? Why is that important? Where’s the balance between individual freedom and community responsibility? Different political parties can have profoundly distinct answers to these questions.
And all this without even broaching the subject of the relationship between religion and politics!
I raise these questions primarily because of what I’ve been watching unfold amongst our neighbours to the south. But not only because of that. Over the last few years I’ve also paid a little more attention to Canadian politics. We’ve got our own shenanigans, certainly. Very little of it has given me confidence in our political institutions.
But what really concerns me is the seemingly unbridgeable divide between political opponents. Yes, politics has always been a dirty game in many respects. Many people have long been cynical about the prospects for political unity. There’s always been mudslinging. Political attack ads are nothing new.
However, what I think is new is the extent of the division and partisanship, the degree to which the political culture has reached an almost thoroughly distrustful and angry tone. There is virtually no overlap between people on the left and right, no willingness to have honest, more nuanced conversation about fundamental issues. Can you imagine, for example, Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole going for coffee? To be honest, much of what has been going on lately in politics–in our country and south of the border–has felt like self-parody.
A significant part of the problem is the media, because in the fight for ratings and profit in a highly competitive industry political pundits, newscasters, and reporters have all become—admittedly or not—thoroughly biased in their approach. Networks and news organizations play to particular audiences, skewing certain stories deliberately, focusing on or even ignoring specific stories altogether. It feels disingenuous and all it seems to do is feed the fires of discontent and disunity. News no longer only covers politics; news is political.
Ok. So say I’m right about all this. What’s to be done? Surely our political systems are too large, too unwieldy, and too deeply entrenched for any real change to occur.
Maybe that’s where religion comes in.
But won’t that further division and deepen the antagonism? After all, that’s subject number two that we should avoid discussing.
Here’s where I address my own so-called tribe specifically: Christians, followers of Jesus, those who claim to believe the Bible, rely on its promises, and adhere and live by its teachings and principles.
Now, I get there is no one Christian tribe. We are sub-divided beyond reason in some respects. Hopefully, though, I’ll be saying something most followers of Jesus can affirm.
Here’s what I think: we need to cultivate and therefore model what it means to have meaningful, winsome, respectful conversation with people who profoundly disagree with us.
In other words, to talk without yelling, getting angry, and listening only to know how we can refute someone else’s point of view.
It means learning to see even people with whom we have deep disagreements as individuals made in the imago Dei, worthy of dignity and respect, as people we can’t reduce to labels and group affiliations.
It means wanting to win a person more than the argument. Who cares if you’re right if you’re being a jerk about it? What did the apostle Paul say about love in 1 Corinthians 13 again?
It means being able to understand those who differ from us on their terms rather than resorting to simplified caricatures or, worse, misrepresentations of their positions and ideas. To this end, we do have to have a willingness to have our ideas corrected or at least amended.
And it also means walking away from a conversation rather than allowing yourself to be caught in a toxic social media comments section or an escalating argument that’s generating more heat than light.
It also means, unfortunately, that there are going to be times when such conversation is impossible with some people. We may have to resign ourselves to the reality that there will be people who refuse to be civil in their tone and humble in their posture. No matter our best efforts, some conversations will not go or end the way we want.
Certainly it means that however important politics is, Christian eschatology doesn’t begin and end with another election cycle or political debate. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, not Trump, Trudeau, or anyone else.
All of this means wanting to exhibit the qualities—indeed, the fruit—of the Spirit in our lives, our attitudes, our words, our conversations, our relationships, and our public engagement of important issues.
Is there more to be said on this? I have no doubt. But no less.
Honestly, don’t we want to be people who, through abiding in Christ, know the difference between God and Caesar? Each has their place, to be sure, but one is temporal and one is eternal. Best not to get the two mixed up and find ourselves investing too dogmatically and vehemently in the one that cannot bring us ultimate peace.
In the meantime, if we do it right, with civility and humility, I think religion and politics are precisely the things we should be talking about.