dear hilary: stay at the table
This is a new kind of dear hilary question – but one that I care a lot about, and I’m excited to share.
As Christians, what, if anything, do we stand to gain from political disputes? Should we just throw up our hands and agree to disagree, even on emotionally charged issues that matter deeply to us? Or should we dive in headfirst and fight the good fight, even when it starts to poison our relationships and hurt our ability to love those with whom we disagree?
Or is there a third option?
Sincerely, Swing State of Mind
Dear Swing State,
When I lived in the bright chaos of DC, I remember wondering how people “did it” without losing their minds. The mantra of “it’s who you know, it’s the connections you have,” or the walk along K Street with the power houses and the promise-makers-and-breakers was a lot to take in. And it seemed like the longer I spent time there, the more I realized the immense complexity of political life. The process of getting a bill to the floor alone is long enough and complicated enough to want to throw up your hands. And sometimes, when you hear one more report on the 7 o’clock news or one more newspaper headline about gridlock and insider Washington and the stalemate of government and this or that filibuster fight – you think this can’t be what it is meant to be.
And I don’t think it is. I don’t think we are intended to sit at tables and yell at each other over nicely arranged water pitchers and smoothly swiveling chairs. I don’t think political conversation is meant to be so defensive and so positional that everything we hear the so-called “other side” saying we treat as an attack we must vigilantly rebuff.
But here is the thing. A conversation only dissolves when people leave it. It might be a loud cacophony right now, it might sound like chaos, it might make us want to give up – but it still has life in it. If we withdraw, if we become so dissatisfied that we simply cease to participate, we might send a signal of our dissatisfaction, but we won’t have a better conversation. We won’t get to be agents of that change.
I don’t want Christians to be in politics simply because we represent an important philosophical perspective on matters of political and community significance. That’s true. We care a lot about highly charged issues and our reflections can add a lot to policy-making. I want us to be there because we are fundamentally people of peace and justice. I want us to be there because, if we claim Christ, then we claim a kind of approach to politics, to conversations, to decisions about our common life, with the fiercest kind of commitment to listening. Peacemaking has to begin with listening. Justice has to begin with listening. If we leave the table, how will we hear?
That means if we sit at the table, if we model for others and for each other (because we need that, too) we can make the conversation itself, the very way we go about deciding these things and weighing different opinions, one that is peaceful rather than punishing. We can ask questions and sincerely listen. And yes, maybe the philosophical opinion on one policy issue won’t become law the way that some of us in this wild knit-together family wanted. Maybe it will be less than our original vision.
But we can be a people who don’t retreat into a silo of the like-minded. We can be a people who disagree within themselves, but who know that to do this common life, we have to listen. You say that sometimes our opinions hurt our relationships and makes it difficult to love those with whom we disagree? But whether it’s in politics or families or workplaces or third-grade classrooms this was the charge we were given by Christ. We were told to love. So we have to get down in the dirt with each other and practice it. Couldn’t it be, in fact, that participating in this political life is a part of how we learn to love?
Can we imagine together that this politics thing doesn’t have to be fighting the good fight and hurting those we love? We do that no matter what, so we’ll bring it to politics. But can we imagine that politics could be the kind of chasing after justice with our whole participation at the table, disagreeing with care and attention, being the first to stay at the table when it gets difficult, being a people who listen?
If we leave the table, how will we hear?