With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Q: Politics has put some rough edges on family and church relationships. People in our church have some very different political views. They support different candidates. But what makes it really hard is that they attack each other for the views that they have. I have heard, “You are not a Christian if you support … .” But even within my larger family, feathers have been seriously ruffled.
I think it is good that people who have different opinions about political candidates can talk about it. But I think it is not good when it goes to personal attack. That is my opinion.
What I write to you about is to get your thoughts about what happens after the election. A candidate will win and a candidate will lose. How do you suggest we deal with the hurt feelings that remain? We continue to be members of the same congregation and members of the same larger family. How do we handle the aftereffects?
A: Thanks for your thoughtful concern.
A recent study suggested that more than 20 percent of relationships have been damaged at some level by political disagreement and argument. Most disturbing to me is the increased negativity and intensity of our conversations about politics (and frankly, about other things, as well). At some point in an intense polarization process, the social fabric begins to tear. This is true at congregational and denominational levels as well as in local, national and world communities.
We do need conversations about the increasing polarization process. Prevention of what you describe will not ever be total and people will have strong feelings and views that bring them into robust conversation with each other. Healthy and passionate disagreement is important in the social fabric. But how do we engage in that at the same time that we stay connected with each other in empathy and care? This, of course, begins with developing the skill of listening to each other.
Before we begin to assert our own views, it is important to take the time to learn more about the views of the other person. This would save a lot of escalation into destructive relationships.
But your question is what happens afterwards. What could and should happen afterwards is that people in your family and in the larger body of Christ approach each other. Someone needs to take this initiative. The approach is not one of “you did such and such,” but rather “I did such and such.”
“I” language means that the person speaking is taking responsibility for their part in the conflict. The person who said, “You are not a Christian” could come back to the person later with “When we talked about our political views, I attacked you and said that you are not a Christian. I deeply regret that. I apologize for that. My feelings got the best of me and I behaved in a way unbecoming a follower of Christ. Please forgive me.” This is indeed a position of vulnerability.
Participants do need to take responsibility for their behavior. There is no hedging on this point. Personal responsibility is a first step, as a participant in the conflict owns his or her own behavior and its effects on the other person. This is a step of repentance.
The aftereffects should not be ignored. Too often, conflicts like you describe are simply left alone and the participants move on with their lives. But the pain of the conflict endures and creates a cleavage in the relationship. Directly dealing with the aftereffects by talking with the person involved is a necessary start toward repairing the relationship. The repair is likely not a one-step or one-time process. Destruction can happen quickly and often does. Repair takes time.
All this happens at the foot of the cross and in the power of Christ’s empty tomb, as He gives us His Spirit.
The Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is professor of Practical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and director of its M.Div./Alternate Route programs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted Nov. 19, 2012