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Rules of Engagement

Summary: Following up on his July 4 sermon "Citizen," Pastor Tom VanAntwerp shares some timely, helpful guidelines for political discussions.

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On Fourth of July weekend, I shared a message at Grace Chapel titled “Citizen”. The message touched on a variety of themes including our current American political climate and the upcoming national presidential election.  In that message, I called our congregation to commit to being agents of reconciliation in the midst of a contentious and divisive political season. 

After the service, a woman came up to me in the lobby and said, “Okay, I need you to give me some very practical advice about how to do that because I’m getting together with some family members and I just found out they are big time ________________ supporters (insert presidential candidate here) and my family have been life-long ________________s (insert opposing political party here).  I have such strong feelings about these things and I’m afraid if we even broach the topic it is going to push all my buttons and it won’t end well!”

So for my friend who caught me in the lobby, and for all of the rest of us who will be spending time with extended family and other friends this summer, I put some thought into how practically help navigate moments like this.

Affirm your relationship and acknowledge the challenge.  Right from the beginning, break the ice and verbalize these things.  Say what is true!  Acknowledge that political conversations can often lead to conflict and hurt feelings, and you don’t want that to happen with you.  Let them know that you care about them, and that regardless or your views your relationship is the higher priority.  Simply verbalizing this helps to set a tone.

Agree to a time limit for the discussion.  Unbounded time for heated political discussion only invites a “point-counterpoint” scenario that can go on and on, leading to conflict and resentment.  Setting a time limit says that this topic is a worthwhile one for you to talk about, but you don’t want your time together to be consumed by it.  Set an alarm if you think it would help.

Seek to understand and be understood – rather than to persuade.  Instead of trying to win an argument, try to figure out why the other person believes and feels the way that they do.  See the conversation as an opportunity to learn more about what is important to your friend or family member.  There may be something you learn from their point of view.  There may be grace that you need to extend to them.  At the same time, help the other person understand what’s important to you, why you hold certain perspectives, and what challenges you’d like to see overcome in our world.  Remember that the debate format only leads each side to deeper entrenchment.  Deriding and insulting positions or people leads to defensiveness and closes the door to relationship and understanding.

Point out common ground.  When you find points of resonance and agreement – point it out!  Acknowledge and celebrate it.  We have more in common with one another than we realize.  I often wish someone would hold a forum where the major candidates could only discuss things they agreed on.  If they were able to be honest, I believe would be surprised how much they share in common.  Remember, political campaigns are all about exploiting the areas of difference and disagreement.   That’s all we get to see and hear about because the process is rigged that way.

Acknowledge the complexities we face.  We often pretend that our political point of view would offer simple solutions to the problems of our world.  The truth is, the challenges of our world are very complex, and political solutions offer some help, but never complete answers.  Any political position involves trade-off of values and solutions.  Be honest about these things.

And finally...

Thank the other person for the privilege of the conversation, and move along to talking about other things.  If we express appreciation to each other for the gift of a conversation that helps us understand each other better, we remind ourselves of the primary value of relationship.  It turns a possible point of conflict into an affirmation of relationship.  And isn’t that what we are looking for when we connect with friends and family?

Happy summer everyone!

Posted by Tom VanAntwerp with