On Tuesday, NPR aired a segment titled ‘Dude, I’m Done’: When Politics Tears Families And Friendships Apart. The piece highlights “how much the nation’s bitter political divide is causing social splintering and taking a toll on friendships.” No doubt the vitriol and polarization in our country’s politics have permeated into the personal relationships of its citizens. Sadly, the spirit of our time has also seeped into the church.
Most Christians I know aren’t performing outrageous acts of hate over politics. Where we are mostly tempted is toward dismissing people in socially appropriate ways— the side comment, the roll of our eyes, the snap judgment. Sometimes it’s in inwardly deciding to write off another person, even if it’s someone we’ve known and loved for years. Online and in-person, I have seen Christians on both sides treat those who disagree with them politically no differently than the world would. I am ashamed to say I’ve demonstrated the same lack of charity myself.
In the coming days, followers of Christ have an opportunity— more than that, the responsibility— to be different. With Election Day five days away, we need to hear what God has to teach us about how to interact with and speak about those who will vote for a different presidential candidate than us.
Whatever your political position, here are some lessons from our Lord that we ought to remember now and in the days ahead.
1. Jesus took each person seriously.
Years ago, I heard a seminary student ask whether to dismiss the author of a theologically unorthodox book. The professor started his answer with, “First of all, we don’t dismiss people.” During these divided times, we are increasingly dismissing those we disagree with.
“We’re flattening people out in terms of our view of them and we’re not really seeing the full complexity of people on the other side,” said an author in the NPR article. C.S. Lewis might say we are seeing those who vote differently than us as “mere mortals,” and it is worth quoting him in full here as we think about the implication of personhood during election season.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. (The Weight of Glory)
American culture elevates our country and its political parties to immortality while treating people as mortals. When we do the same in the church, we exhibit the very things Lewis warns of– flippancy, superiority, and presumption. We are flippant when we dismiss the concerns of others, labeling people as uneducated, elitists, bigots, and snowflakes. We feel superior because of what we believe are the morals, education, and inside knowledge that inform this immortal vote of ours. We presume we know why those on the other side think like they do. When we do these things, we reduce others to less than who they truly are.
Consider how Jesus treated people when he walked on earth. He took each person, as Lewis said, seriously. He never belittled those he rebuked. He didn’t make fun of how they were dressed, point out how stupid they were, or say “that’s just because you’re a Pharisee.” He didn’t attack straw men or unfair caricatures. Rather, he knew each person well enough to speak directly to issues of the heart. His hard words were not insults, but invitations to repentance. If Jesus, who was always right, treated others this way, why would we as Christians think it is okay to do otherwise? We can get easy likes on social media or feel justified in our rightness, but Jesus warns us that on the day of judgment we will give account for every careless word that escapes from our mouth because it flows from the heart (Matt. 12:33-37).
I’m not saying we can’t call out people on their errors. The other day I prayed for a woman whose 78-year-old husband had COVID-19. I burned with anger at an administration that failed to protect them and at how it seems so many Trump supporters, refusing to wear masks, deny the reality of our situation. They are wrong and their actions have had devastating consequences. But it would be presumptuous for me to not take time to understand someone who has trouble wearing a mask because of PTSD from domestic abuse. It would be sinful for me to turn to treat Trump-supporters with disdain and a sense of moral superiority.
Brothers and sisters, we need to remember that the person who votes differently than us is a person. And even if this does not mean much to those outside of the church, it must mean something to those who affirm Genesis 1. If all people are image bearers, worthy and precious in the sight of God, this includes not only the unborn, refugee, or poor, but those we disagree with politically.
2. Jesus died for his enemies and calls us to love ours.
Most of the time, those voting on the other side don’t intend to harm us. We can argue that their votes do have consequences, though I believe which issues people consider personal are informed by their life experiences. (Think, for example, how a person whose friend was murdered by law enforcement would feel about police reform, or how a person who survived a failed abortion with lasting physical disabilities would feel about Roe v. Wade.) My point here though is even if people harmed us by their votes intentionally and in pure hatred, in other words if our political enemies were truly enemies, Jesus’ call is clear:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:43-48)
In this election season and beyond, we need to seriously consider Jesus’ rhetorical question: If we only love those who vote like us, what makes us any different than the rest of the world?
Christians are called to Christlike love that would cause us to lay down our life for our enemies. In the day-to-day, this looks like patience and kindness, contentment and humility, reasonableness and forgiveness (1 Cor. 13:4-7). This may mean little daily deaths as we speak to those who disagree with us: speaking with gentleness, holding our tongue, or overlooking an offense. Love may mean bringing over a meal, checking on a neighbor, or praying on your own for someone who refuses to talk to you.
Love compels us to seek out the other person’s good and listen to her concerns. If we pay attention, the rationale behind a person’s vote often reveals her experiences, fears, and hopes. Love means I mourn over the suffering that has informed her decisions, and pray for her in her worries. It means I do not assume the worst about a person, even if his political priorities differ from mine. It may even mean I am convinced to change how I vote.
Supernatural love has always marked the people of God, and we have inherited the faith of saints through the ages who loved and forgave even their persecutors. The American church loves to recount stories of missionaries like Elisabeth Elliot serving the people who killed her husband, or the reconciliation of Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda. These accounts move us because they reflect the reality of the gospel, that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10). In a divided country in the midst of global pandemic, mudslinging debates, and hate on all sides, we have been given a chance to love a little bit like this.
3. Jesus invited a tax collector and zealot to follow him together.
The world is complicated and neither Republican nor Democratic ideology is Christian, so believers inevitably will fall on different sides when forced to choose. Though this causes friction to say the least, might it be that God has called people in the church to diverse political conclusions so they might work in all parts of a broken system? Either way, the reverse is certainly true, that he calls people from differing political convictions to be one for his glory.
Pew Research has found that “four-in-ten registered voters in both camps say that they do not have a single close friend who supports the other major party candidate, and fewer than a quarter say they have more than a few friends who do.” While it’d be less messy to keep that pattern in our churches (only being in relationship with people who agree with us politically), Christian unity is not the same as uniformity. Jesus’ demonstrated when in choosing his twelve disciples, he included two who would have stood diametrically opposed to one another politically.
Matthew was a tax collector working for the Romans, which meant he was, in the eyes of many Jews, a traitor. Simon the Zealot was committed to Jewish independence and overthrowing Rome by any means. These were not minor observations about their opinions. It was so important that this is how they were known and identified. Yet when Jesus called, they went after him together.
Jesus’ call demanded that Matthew and Simon leave their livelihood and political commitments to follow him, and we are called to do likewise. Politics still matter, but cannot be what matters supremely anymore. What unites us as believers is so much greater than our vote. It so far surpasses our shared American citizenship it isn’t even worth comparing: united in one body, with one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, we are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 4:4, 2:19). If I am tempted to break fellowship with someone solely because of how she votes, there is something distorted in my view of God’s kingdom and family. We have been made one by the precious blood of Christ, and we must not take that lightly.
Our differences are real and important, even as we are one. So it is when we disagree sharply with one another that we need Paul’s exhortation to “bear with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1). As we persevere in love, we will find ourselves offering correction and being corrected at times. We can disagree, but the fact that brothers and sisters in Christ are family must remain more important to me than their vote.
Church unity is a matter of our witness to the world. Jesus prayed we would, “become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (Jn. 17:22-23). We show the surpassing value of his kingdom when we display unity across political divides, following him, loving one another, and serving others together. No matter who our next president is, there is so much we do agree still needs to be done in the world, and the whole body of Christ is needed for the tasks remaining.
Learning to Love in 2020
The current political climate and social media have made fools of us all by dehumanizing and reducing us in each other’s eyes to talking points and votes. But before you blast that response, repost the meme, or write off a friend, would you pause for a moment and consider Christ?
The Trump voter has inherent dignity endowed by a Creator who cares deeply about his concerns. The Biden supporter was made to glorify God and was entrusted with gifts for the good of the world. The conscientious abstainer and third-party voters have had God-ordained experiences informing their convictions.
One day, the saints who voted differently than you will be clothed in everlasting splendor, and you along with them, because Christ so loved his enemies he died to make us one. May God be glorified as we learn to love like this in 2020.
Here are questions you can consider as you interact with those voting differently than you:
- Am I treating this person like the image-bearer they are?
- Am I obeying Jesus’ call to love even my enemies?
- Am I reducing my brothers and sisters to their vote, elevating their political views over our shared identity in Christ?
Also, as a model of how Christians ought to disagree, check out RM’s podcast, Family Discussion. Says co-host Lisa Robinson, “If you’re tired of the swift labeling, finger pointing, culture canceling ways Christians are dealing with disagreements around race and justice issues, you’ll want to tune in to this season.”