Every Sunday morning I get to stand up in front of Democrats and Republicans, and we try to figure out how to follow Jesus together.
Diversity is not often the church’s strong suit. Sunday mornings are still among the most segregated hours of the week; we don’t always look very much like our local soup kitchens and homeless shelters and many other of the least segregated hours of the week, places our worship should be driving us to. But perhaps a few first steps on the long road of diversity might fall along ideological lines.
In June 2014 Pew Research Center released a study on Political Polarization in the American Public. Among its many findings were three key points:
First, Democrats and Republicans are more ideologically divided than in the past, significantly so in the last ten years:
On top of these numbers, 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans viewed the other party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.”
And finally, the percentages of those who vote and those who give to political candidates and/or groups continue to drift toward the ends of the spectrum, as the study reveals:
On measure after measure – whether primary voting, writing letters to officials, volunteering for or donating to a campaign – the most politically polarized are more actively involved in politics, amplifying the voices that are the least willing to see the parties meet each other halfway.
And all of this data is from June of 2014, when all of our blood pressures were a little lower.
It used to be if you did a Google search for “why are republicans so” and “why are democrats so”, the first answer was stupid. As I type this on the last day of May 2017, stupid has been replaced by mean as the number one answer for both parties. In my neck of the woods, that means fewer hearts are being blessed and more are being ripped out.
But here’s the thing: I don’t believe we’re all so stupid or so mean, not really. I don’t believe this is who we really want to be, on either side. And serving a church where I get to know people on both sides makes me believe this more, not less, every day, even in political seasons that try everyone’s patience.
There are some, growing in number the closer you get to the ends of the spectrum, who find mean is good for business. Maybe your Twitter feed and television screens are full of this kind of noise.
But most of us still live somewhere closer to the middle, and the noise we take in doesn’t have to represent the people we actually are.
In the New Testament, there is an oft-quoted passage when it comes to politics:
For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor. – 1 Peter 2:13-17 (NRSV)
The language here is built around honor, using a Greek word also used to describe price, value, and worth. To me, there is a foundational idea that threatens to be drowned out by the noise, the meanness, and the stupidity: human beings have worth. It’s not theoretical rocket science, but its application sometimes requires a similar amount of force to get us off the ground.
Consider this: the strongest opposite of mean isn’t nice. Nice is a French word that originally meant stupid. As such the word nice is found in the scriptures exactly zero times. Nice doesn’t change anything and can become enabling. Jesus isn’t asking us to be nice.
But he is asking us to be kind.
Kindness is found in the scriptures, usually showing up in lists that also include words like goodness, love, patience, and compassion. Compassion – literally, “to suffer with” – is a word actions always follow in the Gospels. We’ll let people do things to us in the name of nice. But when Jesus is compassionate, he acts. In ways that make a significant difference. Every time.
We are a passionate people when it comes to politics, sometimes rightfully so. But more and more we seem to lack any real compassion for the human beings of real worth on the other side of the argument. And so we end up speaking of each other, sometimes in public but most often in private conversation with people who already agree with us, in escalating words of stupidity and meanness. Sometimes nice, but almost never kind. And doing things this way, both sides often fail to make a significant difference.
But I have found one of the best ways a little kindness gets introduced in the equation is when people from both sides of the aisle share a common sanctuary.
I am blessed to serve a politically diverse congregation. It challenges me in all the best ways as a preacher because it forces me to consider a broader audience. We have to consider how both democrats and republicans will hear something not in theory, but because they have names and faces and are a part of our family. And this experience makes me a better listener.
Compassion is born of good listening. When people of faith plug their ears on matters of importance and integrity in deference to any political candidate, we lose our ability to be a meaningful part of the conversation. But the opposite is also true. Every county in the region I serve voted for Mr. Trump, most of them by significant margins. When we unplug our mouths and publicly, continuously rail against an elected official, we simply will not be heard by the majority who put that person in office. Also not rocket science: if we want people to listen to us, we have to listen to them.
In our church we have those who are not shy about their affiliation and those who keep their choices to themselves. But all of them help keep our vision closer to the center, closer to things that matter more, and closer to Jesus.
Our goal is not to be a nice church. Unity for the sake of unity is too fragile to stand. But unity under the cross of a compassionate Christ drives us to significant action and, hopefully, making a significant difference in our own lives and the community. And we get to do it together.
It’s in small things like donating backpacks full of school supplies or sharing a cup of coffee and a donut on Sunday mornings. Simple acts of kindness shared by diverse groups of people help us see the worth in not just those we serve but those we serve with.
Nowhere is this more true than at the table for communion. It’s one of the only places left where absolutely everyone is treated exactly the same (unless you’re gluten-free).
Everyone receives the same bread and the same cup. There is no special democrat bread, we don’t serve the rich from a golden chalice, and in our church you don’t have to be a member. I keep coming back to our invitation, which is the pinnacle of that which unites us:
Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.
Love of God, need of grace, and desire for peace. To celebrate communion is not only to remember we agree on these things, but to actively participate in a unity truly greater than anything that divides. When we find ourselves, in all our passionate differences, together at a common table, we are far more likely to find ourselves showing kindness and compassion to one another when we walk away from the table. And in doing so, we become far more likely to believe and live that, even in this crazy time, compassion can still make the biggest difference.