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Loving across a political divide

We’re all more tuned in than we want to the current political divide: the red state, blue maps and what they tell us and don’t. If we’re thinking, “just politics,” think again. It’s also a cultural divide, a religious & sociological divide, a divide that runs through families, even through our own hearts. On each side of this divide, are the things we hold most dear: matters of conviction, of conscience, of ways of seeing and explaining the world, deeply personal responses to our own circumstances, and lurking always, matters of group-tribal loyalties.

On both sides of the divide, it’s mixed crowd. Mixed like most crowds are mixed: all mixed up. We line up under various issues, make complex judgment calls and compromises whenever we vote. Some of us are activists or unabashed partisans on either side, others reluctant fellow-travelers, many are longing for other choices. Not a few of us are conflicted. Or just muddled and befuddled.

Communication across this divide is marked by argument, judgment, contempt, intimidation. More talking at than with each other.

More yelling than confiding.

I’m not here (let alone competent) to say who’s right & wrong, even less who’s side God is on. No, a different question has gripped me: how do we love across this divide? Because it’s in this room, thank God.

First an historical observation—you draw your own conclusions. Jesus came to as politically charged an environment as ever was: a Middle Eastern country under foreign occupation. Where everything was political, everything was religious, everything was personal. Where every issue seemed to scream, “It’s all at stake, here!”

These were the parties of his day. And they were as political as they were religious parties:


+ Herodians—artistocratic supporters of Herod, Rome’s puppet king

+ Sadduccees. Aristorcrats.Theological conservatives of their day.

+ Elders. Aristorcrats, land-owners, power brokers.

+ Chief priests. Aristocratic elite. Part Jewish rulers, Roman puppets.

+ Pharisees (scribes, rabbis). Middle class, popular party.

+ Essenes: a pox on all your houses, out in the desert…

+ Zealots: conspiring to overthrow Rome. Freedom fighters/terrorists.


Each of these parties at different times, felt threatened by Jesus and also had hopes of getting a piece of him, when he seemed to back ideas that they too held dear. Some tried to make him their boy. All felt relief when he was out of the picture, except the Essenes who were off the New Testament radar screen for some reason.

My minimalist conclusion from this historical observation: When we say about ourselves: “I am a Christian and a Democrat (or and a Republican, Independent) we’re saying two different things about ourselves, not the same thing. Like I said, it was minimalist observation. But in these crazy times even statements like this can sound insightful.

Since we’re members of body of Christ by virtue of “I am a Christian,” it follows that the church is a place we learn to love across political divide. Or it better be if it’s a real church and not just a Christian club.

What would be a model in New Testament for how we might do that? Ro. 14: 1-22

First by way of background. We sometimes forget that Paul was a fellow sufferer. That he went through periods of deep isolation and anguish. We know that many people in his own day found him difficult to understand (see the end of 2 Peter) and even more difficult to live with. He was at the forefront of all the major disputes running wild in the church—and these were deeply personal, painful disputes. St. Paul is often depicted in art as having a large forehead. A battering ram kind of forehead. An unafraid of brick walls kind of forehead, because wasn’t shy about wading into a good dispute. But here, in Romans fourteen, we see a different Paul. A battle weary Paul, speaking from his place of pain.

The issues he is talking about are dietary issues & sacred day issues. How’s that any help to us? You ask. We’re talking about issues of war & peace, terrorism, abortion, gay marriage, tax policy, environmental concerns, health care. Dietary & sacred day issues sound petty, insignificant concerns.

Except, the gospel at the time of this letter, is a Jewish movement, busting out of the confines of Judaism into Gentile world.Dietary: more than Burger King vs. Seva. 1) Whether to eat meat that was non-kosher; 2) whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols—demons. One is a central issue of Jewish identity. Other, contact with the holy or the demonic. They were, in other words, radioactive issues in their time.

Sacred days: What could be controversial about that? Think about Halloween parties in the Bible belt. What are we doing celebrating the devil’s holiday? Even here in Ann Arbor, “What’s a Christian approach to Halloween?” comes up with tedious frequency. Official answer: I don’t know. The other sacred day issue was probably Sabbath observance on 7th day—no big deal, excepted that it had always marked the tribe of Yahweh. Had always been a primary boundary marker. So a lot at stake: in or out? For example.

The writer of Romans has a personal position on both issues: he’s for freedom to eat food sacrificed to idols and to observe or not observe sacred days

But the issues were still hotly contested issues in Jesus movement. Peter, no slouch, was back and forth on the dietary issue. The Jewish mission leaders were on one side; the gentile mission leaders on the other.

In the middle of this vortex of controversy what does Paul say?

1. No judgment across the divide! “Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters” (14:1) “You, then, why do you judge your brother?” (14: 10) “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another” (14: 13)

Paul is not saying, “no opinions, no convictions.” He has his own on these matters. “No judgment.” Judgment says: this is not even disputable! Good Christians cannot disagree on this issue and remain as brothers. Judgment: easier to know when it’s happening to you, than when you are doing it.

I received a letter recently from a woman “Evangelical does not mean Republican” in a recent sermon. My priest friend across town at St. James might have put it a little differently: “Episcopalean does not mean Democrat.” Then the woman, a dear Christian lady, as we used to say, went on to tell me a story. How she was told at a Bible Study that one could not possibly be a Christian and a Democrat. She allowed as how this came at a vulnerable time in her life and faith and she thought, “Well, maybe I’ve chosen the wrong faith.” And so she spent a few months exploring and practicing (in it’s mildest possible form, I’m guessing) witchcraft. And how God eventually said to her, “You don’t need to keep doing that. Come home and I’ll take better care of you.” And she did and He is. All to say, on some matters, maybe we’d be better off leaving pontification to a real pontiff. Unless we all want to lay claim to infallibility and then all bets are off.

So what’s our response to this? Well, tune in to writer’s tone: stop it! Pulling us up short. Jerking on the chain. Response: Yes sir! Right away, sir! Sorry, sir! (And some going back to party judged.)

2. No contempt across the divide! Paired with the first two “no judgment” statements, we have slight variation: “The one who eats everything must not look down on him who does not” (14:3) “Or why do you look down on your brother?” (14: 10) Contempt.

Contempt is even more attitudinal than judgment. Not just what you say, but the emotional undercurrent. You fool! for sure. I can’t believe you’d think that! Probably. But also, that condescending, dismissive tone can express contempt.

Let’s not forget: according to the New Testament writers, something called the “powers and principalities” are holding considerable sway over the structures of this world. This unsurrendered to holy love world.

And these powers, I think it’s safe to say, have, if not a choke-hold, at least considerable sway over structures like political parties. Especially that power that might be described as the “will to power.” We would hope that good people in the political parties would be doing their level best to resist these powers. But being powers, they are not easily resisted.

And it’s worth knowing that one of these “powers” holding sway is raw hatred of the human. And this is what contempt is eventually linked to when it’s traced back to its spirit-origins, if we’re thinking in biblical categories. Including the contempt that masquerades as entertainment every night during the election season over our media airwaves and underground cables. Just something to keep in mind when we engage in political conversation—what’s in the air, so to speak. Let the reader understand.

3. Respect for another’s servant across the divide. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (14:4)

One of the great mysteries of love: in order to love others, we must let them go. Because love only happens in a free space. But we forget that and have all these claims over each other. Like group loyalty or tribal claims. Ever seen, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It’s all about the tribal claims of Greek culture. As believers we can exert unholy tribal claims over each other. But we’re not to do that. Because love only happens in a free space.

This is something I felt impressed on me recently when we ordained Donnell to pastoral ministry. As I placed my hand on his head in the ordination ceremony, I was made to understand, that this was to be a hand of blessing, and not a, shall we say, sticky-fingered hand. That Donnell was another man’s servant. The Son of Man’s servant, in fact. And we were to embrace him and receive him, as such.

Why would I need to be reminded of that? Because as a pastor I can get to thinking about people as (forgive me, I’m confessing my sins here) “my people.” Not “my” as in, “the people I identify with” but “my” as in “mine.” Like the way gollum talked about the ring.

Here’s the deal: When people in our own tribe disagree with us, it drives us wild. We try to grab hold of them across the divide and pull them over to our side. And this is a sign of an unholy claim in the act of being exerted.

We let go by remembering, “Wait! They don’t answer to me! This person I disagree with is another man’s servant.” We don’t put trust in their “faulty” reasoning, but in the Lord who is able to make them stand.

Response: Prayer of surrender. Letting go. Renouncing false claims.

4. Respect for another’s conscience across the divide. “As one who is in the Lord Jesus I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards it as unclean, then for him it is unclean.” (14: 14) This is a subtle but powerful point he’s making. He’s saying, “Even though I have a conviction on this matter, I’m not willing to pull my sister-brother into my way of doing things, if it means stretching him beyond his conscience.”

Believe me, it is possible to persuade people to do things that violate their conscience. We’re herd animals. Intimidation can be used to herd. Love can be used manipulatively to herd. Group loyalty bonds & pressure can. But when someone stretchesbeyondtheirconscience to do something, even when that something is right, it can damage them inside. And then what have you done? You’ve become so right you’re wrong, the occupational hazard of the religious person.

So that means across divide we offer respect for the other’s conscience. We refrain from any use of pressure tactics, or manipulation. Like Jeff Billsborough said of Don Bromley recently: “Don has a way of stepping back so you can step forward” He was referring to the way Don responded to Jeff’s cockamamie opinions when he first started the Alpha Course. Don didn’t get into Jeff’s face or space. He left room for Jeff to be Jeff. And Jeff experienced that space as love. And when we stepped into the love, he saw some light.

5. Love and accept across the divide!“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (14: 19)

So easy to tell ourselves: “I love the other person! I accept them” But love & acceptance are made up of one gesture after another. Because we are insecurity generation units. We don’t know that we’re loved until we’ve been shown love, slow and steady, continuously. Like Chinese Water torture in reverse. A steady drip, drip, drip of love lets us know we’re loved. Love expressed, as my brother in law the poet, Bill Elkington, says, “Gesture A, followed by gesture B.” Actually it sounded more poetic in his context, but I’m getting distracted.

So what are these gestures of love and acceptance? Things like: space given to disagree. Recognition of the other’s point of view. Listening more than speaking. Kind gestures. Searching for the good in the other’s point of view, not attacking it with relish. (See also, 1 Cor. 13:4-7)

6. Verbal restraint across the divide. “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (14: 22)

This is Paul’s nice way of saying, “just shut up!”

Of course he doesn’t mean we never talk about these issues. But that we talk about these issues only with great care. Great caution. Great concern for the other. And that often, we don’t talk, especially if our relationship with the other person isn’t at this point of love-laden candor.

Sometimes its not what you say that counts, it’s what you don’t say. I’ve been learning a little trick (that doesn’t seem like the right word, does it?) of spiritual discernment. I’ve been recognizing a certain political internal churning thing I get going in certain conversations. A certain eagerness to get my cogent points across in short order. A certain impatience with the lack of insight or good judgment on the part of my conversation partner. I’ve been discerning of late that this thing is a fruitless brew I’ve got going. Right, insightful (insight up the wazoo matter of fact) but void of the Spirit. And so I’ve trying to notice it when it’s happening.

So that I can begin to use that prayer that’s been given to us all, from the psalms: “Lord, put a guard over my lips!” A heavily armed guard.

Now by way of conclusion, I offer my own sense, for you to discern, take or leave. What is the Spirit yearning for over this abyss, this divide, this chaos?

The Spirit, we know, does a lot of yearning. So what is he yearning for?

Perhaps many things. Perhaps on some issues he’s yearning for one side or other to prevail. Or he’s yearning for other creative solutions to emerge. Perhaps for something more fundamental in culture to happen so issue evaporates or looks very different.

Perhaps there is, on some issues, some middle ground, that would reflect the mind and heart of Jesus better.

But perhaps, what he yearns for now, maybe even, demands, is not so much a middle ground, as a meeting place in the Spirit.

In fact, whatever else is on the horizon, victories for one side or the other, defeats, realignments that give us better options…he hovers, and he waits for us right there…we can’t get there by advancing the argument more persuasively. There’s not the usual ground to cross is there? to conquer, to claim? It’s not ground, it’s a gap, after all.

But the Spirit hovers in places like this…

We can only let him carry us to this place. It’s a place called prayer.

A place called the communion of saints. The fellowship of the Spirit.

What if we took half of the energy that we use to engage the argument, to find this place of prayer. Maybe not half the energy so much as half the intention, or half the longing.

I’m thinking as a banner over top of this place of prayer we might find these words: “Abandon contempt all ye who enter here!”

Inside, there might one of those coffee table quotes in a frame, that you might notice once you sit down: “Embrace the grace that allows you to be in this place.” At first, it looks like one of those cute sayings, but then you realize it’s in dead earnest. This place is filled with something isn’t it? Love, in the form of mercy. And then it’s painfully and wonderfully clear to you. Of course! Or else you wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t be here at all. But you most certainly are.

Then words might flash through our minds in this place: “for the others too, not just yourself.

I think that this may be, in a way that I don’t yet understand, our task. To be such a meeting place, or rather to participate in such a place. To actually enter ourselves, perhaps in ways we haven’t before, or perhaps in known ways with new intentions, this place. And to make this place somehow more available for people on both sides of this divide or other divides.

Wouldn’t that be lovely?

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