Jesus Didn’t De-Friend the Pharisees

November 07, 2012

The President has just won re-election. Health care reform, marriage equality, and “fair share” taxation, among other once-reviled public policy ideas, have been solidified as winning messages in the American political dialogue. For many, myself included, this is a soul-gratifying moment.

But the reality is that for nearly half the country, the disappointment is palpable. (In fact, Donald Trump is calling for a revolution.) Politically, we are a divided nation. After 18 months of defining the issues and candidates, we have come face to face with an unsettling reality: the things we believe and the values that lead us to those beliefs are categorically repudiated by many of our fellow Americans, our neighbors, our friends, indeed even members of our own families. It is easy to feel strangely violated by this. How can truths we recognize so clearly and embrace so dearly be dismissed out of hand in favor of principles we find repugnant by people we feel connected to in substantive ways?

It is not altogether surprising, then, that one of the side narratives that has developed over the course of 2012 is the phenomenon of people severing relationships over political positions and arguments. A number of articles have been written about the way this has played out within social media. On my own Facebook newsfeed there were stretches where not a day would go by without someone announcing they had just “de-friended” someone (or had been de-friended themselves) on account of political affiliation or public policy matters such as marriage equality or women’s health issues.

At first glance it is tempting to dismiss this as merely one more example of people‘s penchant for drama playing itself out in the public square that is social media, akin to the eye-rolling Facebook status update that another friend is now suddenly “single.” Yet, while much of the de-friending” that has gone on certainly falls in this category, there has nonetheless been a very real loss of relationships experienced by a lot of people over this political season.

A question warrants asking: What does it say about the health of our relationships and the healthiness of our approach to relationships that we should find ourselves saying goodbye to people because of differences in how we see the world? Are some perspectives so anathema to our own values that they rightfully disqualify people from being a part of our lives? Perhaps. After all, very few people would argue with the decision to refuse to associate in any way with a Holocaust-denying neo-Nazi activist. There is absolutely a body of worldviews out there that decent people are justified in keeping out of their lives irrespective of who is espousing such views.

Yet something needs to be pointed out here so that we do not make the mistake of engineering a false analogy. We may feel as strongly about attitudes surrounding marriage equality, women’s reproductive choice, or economic justice issues as we do about things like racism, human enslavement or genocide. But it is important to recognize that when it comes to how we work out relationships with the people in our lives, there is a substantive difference between views that are universally repudiated and those that are still working themselves out within the sphere of public opinion.

Should we hold to our views on tax fairness, gay rights, or a woman’s right to choose any less fiercely merely because there are large portions of the human population who do not agree with us? By no means! You answer to the dictates of your own conscience on such things. But when it comes to whether or not we succumb to the temptation to alienate ourselves from one another, or to summon the energy necessary for the hard work of keeping our hearts open to reconciliation, I would suggest that we do ourselves a disservice when we draw the line in such a way that many human beings of good will become unworthy of such reconciling effort.

It is easy to simply push away those with whom we disagree on the issues that are closest to our hearts; to tune-out their voices like so much white noise. It is much more difficult to suffer the feelings of indignation, pain, and even violation in an effort to be the kind of person who takes people where they are and does not ask they become what we want them to be before we are willing to entertain the bonds of friendship. As is true in many instances, I strongly suspect that the harder road is also the one that contains the most promise for growth and enrichment in our own lives.

By contrast, when we allow the passions of our positions fires to be stoked by the rhetoric of a sharply divided political environment—to govern how open we are to people who differ with us—we tragically diminish the opportunities for life to surprise and teach us in important ways.

I’m a person of faith, and I am mindful in this regard of the examples we see in the stories about Jesus of how he consistently went out of his way to seek meaningful exchanges with people who represented vastly different values from his own. In fact, he often made it a point to share meals with such people, understanding that the tangible act of breaking bread with another person makes it much more difficult to dismiss them. He wanted to know people no matter how alien their perspectives might have been to him, and, perhaps more significantly, he wanted to be known by them. He believed not only that he would be blessed by opening himself up to others, but that he would also be a blessing to them by sharing with them his own values and perspectives.

Of course, a figure like Jesus might be expected to suck it up and deal with undesirable people in order to share his message with them. But what about you and I? Well, it seems to me when it comes to the issues we care deeply about, be they political, social or just intensely personal, we might do well to take a page from the Jesus playbook. If we believe in the inherent rightness of our positions or our cause, is it not worth the discomfort of putting up with viewpoints we find ridiculous or even infuriating for the possibility that, through the bonds formed of a genuine and open-minded friendship, the strength of our moral argument may ultimately have a defining impact on that person?

Truthfully, we may or may not bring people to our way of seeing things. But I do know that we are not likely to achieve that by drawing lines that take turn the “us” of friendship into the “them” of factional divides. You may not convince someone through the dialogue that occurs between friends, but you will never convince them through the competing monologues that occur between strangers who see one another only in the light of their opinions with which we strongly disagree.

Even when it concerns issues that are intensely personal to us, we stand a much better chance of changing people’s hearts when we demonstrate that we cherish them as people and value their friendship, as hard as that can be. When someone sees that we are committed to being a friend to them even when it means we have to cross a painful divide to do so rather than demanding that they cross the divide in order to prove they are a friend to us, it can have a powerfully disarming effect on them. It can change them.

It may not happen tomorrow or the next day. But as I sit here typing and hear Rachel Maddow confirming that for the first time in American history, for the first time in over 30 opportunities over the last 12 years, my fellow citizens have gone to the polls and affirmed my right to marry the man I love, I am once again reminded that people are worthy of our patience. Friends are worthy of our faithfulness.

I invite each of us, then, to affirm our relationships with the people in our lives with whom we differ. Whether they be members of our family or friends on the internet, I encourage each of us to commit to valuing the benefits that come from abiding with one another. I encourage each of us to commit to the hard work of working through what divides us in celebration of those things which bring us together. In the end, that’s what is going to heal our country. It is what is going to advance the causes of justice and equality that still elude us. And, more than anything else, it will enrich our lives in more ways than we might dare to hope for ourselves. (by Zach McCallum)

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