Safety for Impossible Disagreements: Old First E-pistle 02.07.20

Safety for Impossible Disagreements: Old First E-pistle 02.07.20

Last Sunday, during communion, Nancy asked for prayers for her friend “who is at complete loggerheads with her cousin over Trump.” 

Was I surprised to hear how our divisive President has divided families? No. I think we have all wondered how George and Kellyanne Conway are still living under the same roof! And remember all those articles that appeared around Thanksgiving about how to survive the holiday dinner table with your crazy uncle who refuses to avoid political topics and disagreements? (I might be such a crazy uncle!)

What struck me was not the breakdown of a relationship between cousins. What made me pause was how much their troubles were weighing on Nancy. I suspect that’s a reflection of how much the break is hurting Nancy’s friend. I later asked Nancy if “loggerheads” was a euphemism. She responded, “They aren’t even talking any longer.” 

Many of us worry about the negative effect Trump and his administration are having on our nation and our world, particularly the most vulnerable. But Nancy’s prayer brings up another detrimental effect. 

Trump’s presidency has not only furthered the polarization that has riven our body politic. It has also supercharged our oppositions, hostility and animosity. The gulfs that separate us have not only grown; they are now filled with hungry sharks! Our differences often feel as if they are about survival, and even to just reach a hand across the divide is threatening. Defending one’s position over against others has come to feel it’s all about life or death.

I confess that most of my world or at least the people I spend my days with are politically homogeneous. I live in a bubble. I have conservative cousins back in the midwest, but being their gay minister cousin, our relations strained and lengthened long before Trump. 

I have one friend who is sure that Trump is the answer. Sometimes we try and talk about it. But our assumptions, categories, facts, knowledge, language are such that these conversations are not so fruitful. Mostly we stay away from political discussions and disagreements. I know he is a good person, a nice guy, even if I cannot imagine how he can be so with his nasty political opinions and positions! 

I wish I had some magic solution for reconciliation! Some pastoral wisdom that Nancy could pass on to her friend and the cousin such that voila — all their trouble would evaporate. And not just them, but for the rest of us and all our hard conversations and fractured relationships. And those of our national discourse too! 

I mean, we are Christians after all. But even listening to, trying to follow Christ, we can be confused — He is our reconciliation, but doesn’t He call us to go to the mat fighting for justice and respect and the well-being of those whose mistreatment surely breaks God’s heart? He wants us to be peacemakers, and yet said, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword…” (Mt. 10:34) 

I do have one suggestion to offer, and it comes from my faith experience. It may not solve everything, but how much in life really ever can or does? 

I read once about the difference that a profound sense of safety can make. I was reading about the results of some fairly sophisticated psychological testing about people’s political opinions and how they change. But the conclusions were sort of common sense. 

When people feel unsafe, we close down, pull back, stop listening, get more recalcitrant, and protect ourselves. I’m using different metaphors than the study, but we get pushed back into our reptilian brains and have only fight or flee options. In other words, we polarize. I think a lot of our current situation is about threat and fear — some of it unavoidable in changes happening in our world (e.g. globalization) and some of it manufactured cynically ( politicians scapegoat for political advantage).

But when we feel safe, we remain more open and present; we listen carefully; we engage thoughtfully, even creatively; we can remain more flexible and be more easily affected by the other. Our hearts don’t race, and our adrenaline doesn’t pump! As I said, it seems self-evident: life is better, easier, richer when we are living it exploring and looking forward to what we can find. This might be too rudimentary, but it’s almost the difference between the garden life of Eden or the enmity, labor and toil of expulsion. 

But the value of safety is also my religious experience, maybe even what I’d say my faith offers me most basically. I know all too well that religion can be fear-based and always focused on the threats and dangers of the world, except for whatever the religion prescribes! This is some sort of refuge from the evil world religion. But ours is a faith that sends us out into the world, proscribes that it is where we will find our abundance. 

Our UCC faith and our teaching at Old First suggests, rather than making the world around us exclusively a place of threat and loss, that God’s love and Christ’s incarnation promise that possibility of God and blessing meeting us in the world. What I am saying is that, my sense of God’s love and God’s presence offers me a quiet, yet consistent sense of safety that makes me who and how I am. 

I fully understand this isn’t any ‘snap your fingers solution’ to Nancy’s friend and her cousin. And one still could protest, “How can one feel safe when our democracy, the rule of law and freedom are under attack?”  You all know me, I am up for a fight on the national political scale. I believe what’s at stake is worth the struggle. 

But maybe there’s something to a grounding confidence in some safety bigger than us when tackling these tough topics and divisive trends? If part of our trouble comes from so many of us  feeling unsafe, are there things we can do to make people feel more safe, to provide even a relative safe space for our difficult conversations? Of course, I think that’s one of the things that church offers in faith. 

See you in church,