A Way Forward

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Michael Browning, unsplash.com

We are a divided United States. The tone and rhetoric of the presidential campaigns was as divisive as I can personally remember. The hyperbole and fear-mongering turned all the way up to 11. It felt as if we were becoming more polarized with each passing day.

And then the election happened. The person who was elected president was not the person with the most votes. That is our system and, like it or not, that is where we are today. Over half of those who voted are angry and/or disappointed. While a large percentage of us celebrate, another large percentage of us grieve. People are protesting, friendships and families are being pulled apart, and the ugliness continues.

Our exit polls tell us that our country continues to be divided by race. We are split on what issues matter most to us and the best ways to handle them. We are divided on our outlook and by our religions. We are divided by urban and rural population groups.

To be clear, we have been divided in the past. We once enslaved people. We once had a sitting vice president kill a political enemy in duel. We once fought a war between states. We once had separate drinking fountains for people based on skin color. Division isn’t new to the US of A, but it’s not good for her either.

Will we ever unite again? Are we doomed to polarize until something breaks? Is this the new normal? I believe there is a way forward.

Simply put, we need each other. We need our varying opinions; we need our vast array of experiences. Our differences do not have to separate us. They don’t have to alienate us. We do not want uniformity, but we do need harmony.

Harmony allows us to sing distinct notes or play unique parts while working toward the same goals. Harmony allows our differences to combine for something bigger and more beautiful. Harmony will lead to us unity.

This was the vision of our founding fathers. They set up our nation so that we could find room to disagree while still having protections and a say in the process. They wanted everyone to have freedom and a voice. John Adams said, “When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power, we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.” Actual American patriotism is rooted in diversity.

Unifying despite our diversity will be neither quick nor easy. If we are to harmonize it will take hard work, patient determination, and calm resilience. It may eventually take acts of Congress or grassroots organization, but we can start today with the small things.

The way forward I would like to propose is the way of the kitchen and dining room table. If our country is ever going to be big enough for all of us, a good first step will be to make sure our tables are big enough for all of us as well.

When we pull up a chair at our table we communicate that a person has value. When our lives intersect with one another, we find that along with our differences we carry things in common. When we share the same experiences, we see our shared humanity. When we sit and talk with people who are not exactly like us, we learn and we grow and we are better for it.

If you don’t know why a person could possibly support Donald Trump, have dinner with someone who did. If you can’t fathom why a person might vote for Hillary Clinton, ask someone who did to go for coffee with you. Don’t try and change their mind or show them how wrong they were. Listen to them. Right or wrong their opinion is just as valuable as yours.

Invite a person of a different race into your home. Ask them their story. Ask them what they feel is unique to their experience.

Instead of mocking people for wanting a safe space, create one for them in your home or office and hear them out. Maybe you’ll both be better for it.

Instead of characterizing anyone who doesn’t agree with you with the worst labels you can come up with, ask them how they came to their conclusions. Maybe you have the wrong idea about them. Maybe they have the wrong idea about you. Maybe you are both partially wrong.

Find someone who has immigrated to our country. Talk to them about why they came and what the American dream means to them. Ask them what things they like or don’t like about our immigration policies.

If a person is responding to this election by saying they are afraid, ask them to help you understand where their fear comes from. To dismiss pain and fear is to dismiss people. That is not the way forward.

Instead of sharing sound bites and memes, share apple pies and book recommendations.

If you don’t understand the things that concern a 20 year old, get to know a 20 year old. If you can’t comprehend how a 64 year old might feel about the direction of our country, go talk with them.

Find people who disagree with you on something divisive, then find what you have most in common and celebrate it. We might disagree on the best way to do healthcare but maybe we can agree to love our local sports team. Let’s make finger foods and paint our faces and unite around that.

When is the last time you sat and talked with a person who practiced a different religion or no religion? Are you even sure what other faiths believe or don’t believe? Spend time together.

If you can’t think of anyone you know or anyone you love who believes differently than you do, that is a major part of our problem. We’ve isolated ourselves from our neighbors and fellow citizens which makes it easy to assume we are always right and demonize anyone who thinks otherwise.

Some say fences make great neighbors. I say fences make poor tables. Let’s tear down what separates us and use the wood to build a bigger table with room for everyone, even those we do not yet understand or appreciate or agree with. This is a first step toward a united nation. This is a first step in overcoming the worst parts of us. 

Unity won’t mean that we all agree. It won’t mean that suddenly my convictions will change. Realistically it won’t solve all our issues. It will, however, mean that I can’t dismiss you immediately. It will mean I am more likely to hear what you have say. It will mean that I can’t label you my enemy because you believe differently.

It is a lot harder to hate a person for their beliefs when you love them for who they are. If we value each other as part of a common community we will work to find a way to bridge the divides between us. We will compromise where we can, agree to disagree when we must, and be united by our shared care and concern for one another.

Let’s start here. Let’s learn from each other. Let’s sit and talk. Let’s listen.

The way forward is around a table, sharing a meal and a laugh. The way forward is watching as our kids play together in the front yard. The way forward is working shoulder to shoulder to make our communities a better place. The way forward is in being teachable. The way forward is you and I and us and them, doing life together, loving each other from the start, and putting in the hard work to make sure we are doing right by each other.

From city to farm. From Christian to Muslim to Hindu to atheist. From white to brown to black. From rich to poor. From gay to straight. From Trump Train to those With Her. From sea to shining sea. You are welcome at my table. Let’s move forward, together.

What If God Doesn’t Want to Make America Great Again?

 

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Recently I received an email stating that if Christians don’t support Donald Trump for president we can “kiss our country goodbye.” It said something to the effect of, “Sure he isn’t all that decent, but if that’s what it takes for our economy to be strong, our borders to be secure, and our nation to be great, then so be it.” It suggested God sent us Trump to preserve our capitalism, our patriotism, and general way of life; that perhaps Trump is God’s tool to save our country.

I’m not going to comment on whether any of that is accurate or not, but the email did get me thinking…

What if God doesn’t want to Make America Great Again? Or maybe, what if God’s definition
of great looks a lot different than what many of us are hoping for? What if saving our country (whatever is meant by that) is not really what God has in mind?

I’m not saying that God wants to see America destroyed, but I’m wondering if we make some false assumptions when we think God wants us rich and safe or whatever other things people mean when they say they want America to be great again.

Set aside the fact that many of us will disagree on what actually makes our country great and consider why we think God wants us wealthy, secure, and politically free. Jesus was none of the above. Nor were his first disciples or the early church or many Christians around the world today. None of those things are promised to us. None of those things are neccessary to live a faithful life.

Have we become so attached to our stuff that we are certain God wants us to keep it? Have we become so accustomed to having a vote that we assume that’s how God orders the world? Are we so desperate for security that we are willing to compromise our most basic values to acheive it? And so opposed to our enemies that we are confident God hates them as much as we do?

If so, we are misguided. These things do not line up with the Gospels where I learn of a Jesus who says to welcome the stranger, forgive extravagantly, give radically, and do not resist an evil person (and love them instead). A Jesus who erases cultural and political and religious divisions.

Jesus who flat out says, “Whoever wants to be great needs to become a servant of everybody else.

But we have little time for that sort of greatness. “Be A Servant” isn’t an attractive campaign slogan. Not when we have elections to win and businesses to boycott and borders to secure. Jesus says his Kingdom is not of this world, but we would say our kingdom certainly is and, well, all that loving and forgiving stuff works in church, but this here is the real world.

And so we declare our allegiance. We choose earthly greatness and power and success and security over the way of the cross. We justify our lack of loving our neighbors because we have to protect our version of the American dream.  We cling to political liberty at all costs and find ourselves chained to platforms and politicians.

I’m not anti-American. I’m not an anarchist. I plan to vote in the coming election. I’m just not going to assume that God’s deepest desire for us is something as fleeting as prosperity or political freedom. I’m not convinced God is hoping we elect the proper candidate so he can finally get to work in our country.

While I strongly believe in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and want those things for all people (literally, all the people), I am not dependant on them. Nor do I think those are the highest things a person can acheive.

Not when our Savior started life as a refugee, lived under the military occupation of his enemies, spent his ministry years homeless, and was persecuted to the point of execution.

Not when the majority of our Scriptures were written to or about people with no freedom, no security, and no wealth. Peope who often neglected their faith whenever they had actually attained those very things.

And not when many of us are willing to ignore the teachings of Christ in order to make a nation great. If I can’t make America great by living the way of Christ, then I want no part in that greatness. And I don’t think God does either.

If we live and love like Jesus of Nazareth at the expense of privilege or safety, I believe America (and the rest of the world) will be greater because of it. Not because we have accumulated all the power and all the wealth, but because we have been faithful. Because being faithful to the way of Jesus is the only way to be truly great.

So inform yourself and vote if you feel so led. But long before and long after your ballot is cast, consider what things you are grasping for, what things motivate and excite you, and what things you assume God wants for you. And then compare them to the life of Jesus.

I imagine we will find we have spent a lot of time and money and energy and yard signs on a greatness that is at best temporary and at worst idolatry. We’ve been invited to something better than anything a politician can offer and we’ve been charged to live in such a way that it doesn’t ultimately matter where we reside or what we possess.

May we be faithful first. Even when the alternative sounds safer and more comfortable. May we choose Jesus and his cross today and every day. Even when it costs us elections and political power. And may we see the world become as great as its ever been.