Politics, Identity, and Dialogue
The events of this 2016 election have left many spinning, on all sides of the political spectrum. Issues of racism, sexism, bigotry, and classism have emerged at the forefront of public conscious in America in a way that some of us have never experienced. For some this kind of tension only existed in history, not in current events. It happened somewhere else to someone else, not to us here at home. After the results of the presidential race, some of us have begun to express fear, anger, disbelief, and anxiety about what it means for our country, the world, and the issues we care about. I have all these feelings too. In fact, the events of this week have only heightened the feelings I’ve had for some time now. I’ve questioned what I believe, where I belong, and what — if anything — I can do to be a positive force.
Seminary, and the discomfort after
A year and a half ago, I graduated from seminary with a Master of Divinity degree. One week later, the United States Supreme Court made a landmark decision to grant same-sex couples the right to marry. It was also a time when racial and gender equality issues were gaining media attention and political discussion. At that time, I found myself in a professional and ideological crisis — a crisis that I’m still experiencing today.
On one hand I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable with some of the positions and values of my conservative Christian background. My studies in seminary had given me direct and sustained exposure to the plight of women, minorities, and LGBTQ people within Western Christianity. Some of these issues, to which I had been ignorant or indifferent to for so long, became important to me in a way that I could never have imagined. This discomfort inadvertently became a direct obstacle to my initial plans of pursuing a traditional position at a church or Christian academic institution. Most opportunities available to me required commitment to a more rigid theological statement than my conscience or pastoral sensibilities would allow. I also found that many weren’t willing to engage in dialogue with other Christians whose perspectives differed from their own.
On the other hand I didn’t feel completely comfortable with what many identify as the liberal side of the Christian faith spectrum. While I could wholeheartedly align with the positions of equality, inclusion, and social justice, I often found the expressions of these positions to be lacking. I felt there was unwillingness to engage in dialogue with other Christians who disagreed, just as there was on the other side. I saw this expressed in either subtle or overt contempt for Christians who held to more traditional views. Here there was contentment with simply being enlightened, progressive, or “woke.” Some had enough privilege they were able to live closed-off, in a more idyllic bubble, aware of some issues but ignorant or indifferent to others.
Without a home
I found myself, metaphorically-speaking, like a person without a country. I no longer fit the conservative values and positions I once had, yet I didn’t fit perfectly with the other end either. I was willing to go further with my questions than others were. I lost friends, who both overtly rejected me or passively pushed me away. The main thing I found in common among Christians was an unwillingness to see people from any other part of the spectrum as Christian. Either way, I had no home.
I spent most of my time after seminary studying as much, if not more. I had to know why I took the positions that I did, or why I could question positions I had been comfortable with in the past. For several years I had planned to write and develop content, but I found myself repeatedly delaying projects, questioning how certain ideas would be perceived in light of the shifting landscape. Sermons and stories I had written years ago could be interpreted in vastly different ways than I had initially intended. I reconsidered all of it, particularly during this election cycle.
In the past year and a half I also spent time talking to people from different backgrounds, faiths, incomes, genders, and political parties. I’ve been fortunate to know a diverse group of people for much of my life. Seeing and hearing how different people experienced and understood the social and political events of the past few years has been important for me: it showed me how much growth and learning can come from dialogue with people who see things differently. Conversely I saw how being only with like-minded individuals could create an isolated environment in which we were no longer challenged beyond our certain shared beliefs. Being “woke” or enlightened is nothing without continued substantive conversation with those who can show us other viewpoints. It is through such dialogue that we grow.
In many ways, I still feel like a person without a home. I believe this is a feeling shared by many people after this election, on all sides of the spectrum. I don’t know where my next steps will take me, but I hope that the fruit of my sustained contemplation will be to foster conversation. First, I hope to encourage Christians to engage in dialogue with other Christians who hold perspectives different from their own. Then, I hope to extend this to conversations with people of different religions, as well as people who do not regard themselves as religious. I hope we can all find something meaningful in the discussion.
Making room for dialogue
So, to those of us who identify ourselves as “Christian”: I would submit that Christian dialogue begins with a willingness to make room, to accept others who hold different theological or ideological viewpoints as also “Christian.” The Christian faith has historically been and continues to be a wide spectrum of beliefs, values, and practices. Within the context of American history, one can easily find Christians on both sides of contentious social and political issues. It is easy to declare ourselves as right and segregate ourselves. When we see more overtly negative expressions of Christian ideology, it is easy to declare that those people are not true Christians. However, in doing so, we lose the ability to own and address the issues or behaviors we wish to denounce. To those outside of Christianity, our vast number of denominational and ideological variances are either invisible or too complex to understand, and thus we are seen as one big monolithic group of “Christians.”
Making room for dialogue and grace also extends to those who practice faiths other than Christianity. The New Testament is full of the stories and struggles of a religious minority trying to live and survive in an empire that regarded them with suspicion and scorn. America may not be a “Christian” nation, but Christians are certainly the most prominent and most socially acceptable religion in America. May we be ever mindful of our origins as Christians when we consider how we interact with other faiths among us. Our desire for religious freedom must extend to them too. While what and how we believe differ, much of the psychology of how and why we believe is the same.
Whether we are engaging with those who hold the same or different beliefs, we can find common ground with others if we want to. The question is: do we really want to find common ground? Our national elections have shown us how deeply divided our country is on numerous issues. This is not something to be taken lightly nor ignored. Meaningful dialogue doesn’t mean abandoning or disregarding our deeply held beliefs. Meaningful dialogue requires differences in perspective, but it also breaks down our ability to identify people as the “other.”
Let’s talk. Share. Keep an open mind. Try to find common ground where you can. Give grace and respect where you cannot, with the hope that grace and respect will be given in turn. Regardless of where you are along the political or religious spectrum, there are people around you who are uncertain and afraid. There are people different from you who need an ally, a friend, or just a kind response more than ever. Be kind. Be just. Reject hate. Hold to your beliefs with both conviction and humility.