Help a divided world meet in the middle
Tensions and uncertainty are nothing new, yet never in my lifetime have the people of this country been so at odds with one another. No matter where you turn today, people are choosing sides and vilifying those who disagree with them on matters of race, class, culture, gender, religion, politics and more. Thanks to social media, the battles are not only ongoing but also perpetually fueled by new videos, hashtags and memes in support of one opinion or another.
According to Jesus, we are never more closely aligned to his person, message and mission than we are when seeking to advance peace (Matt. 5:9).
How then can pastors and other Christ-centered leaders become part of the solution rather than perpetuate the problem of painful polarization in our country and within the churches we lead? How can we instruct others through our own example? Toward that end, consider these seven principles for advancing peace.
1. Avoid Dogmatic Statements.
Newton’s third law states that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” With this in mind, recognize the strength of words aimed at another determines the strength of their reaction. More than that, it will affect their ability to even hear what is being said or why. Keep in mind it’s not what you say but how you say it. Play to more than your affective base, that is, seek to influence those who do not already agree with you.
2. Ask Good Questions.
Most people do not take the time to think deeply about stated beliefs or opinions. Good questions can help them to do so and, in the process, expose faulty thinking, personal pain, anger, animosity and the like borne from life experience. When you ask good questions, you can draw people out, not to rip them to shreds. You can discover what lies below the surface of words or actions. Once you do, speak to the pain and not the issue.
3. Assume the Best of Others.
Every person was made in the image of God. Whether you like it or not, it’s true. There’s a bit of light in everyone. Yes, we are all born sinners. Nevertheless, we should always assume the best and not the worst of others in personal or online interaction. As much as anything, this appraoch will help promote peace.
4. Advance Faith, Not Fear.
Fear so often rules and ruins the opportunities we have to fulfill our calling in helping others to come to know Christ as we do. When we walk in fear or perpetuate it, our witness is undermined. Whether concerning the election of a president, a Supreme Court decision or recent tragic events, our faith is not tied to this world but to the kingdom of God. In the face of fear, Jesus exercised faith. Even on death’s doorstep, he said, “Into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46), expressing faith and hope. Similarly, we should recognize that faith is a tool, and it must be used to establish peace.
5. Always Pause Before You Speak.
Emotion often governs action. Someone misreads what you’ve said and pushes back. Someone says something, and you passionately disagree. You get emotional; things get heated. You don’t feel heard, you feel attacked and you want to make a point. And so you do: You send, speak, tweet or post. Then reality sets in. You think, What an idiot. Why’d I do that? Why’d I say that? You want to take it back, but you can’t. It’s out there, and the damage is done. Take a deep breath and follow James’ instruction (James 1:19). When it comes to social media, have a spouse or friend doublecheck your words and intentions before you post. It will save time, headache and having to apologize later.
6. Acknowledge Complexities
Divisive topics divide for a reason: There are no easy answers. Sadly, many people demonstrate an inability to think or speak with nuance, refusing to address or even acknowledge the worthy points another might make if those arguments do not align with their belief system. For these people, everything is either right or wrong, good or bad, one way or another. Plain and simple, this is driven by ignorance on the one hand, and outright arrogance on the other. Finding common ground, or validating the thoughts of others, even when we don’t fully agree, can help us not only gain ground in conversations but be instructive in the process.
7. Add Balance to the Discussion
People of extreme opinions are not likely to be changed through one conversation. Rather than further entrench these people in their opinions, as will most certainly be done by responding with a completely opposite argument, seek only to move them one or two steps closer to the center of a discussion from whichever side they favor in the moment. Make it your goal to help people better navigate nuance and recognize equally valid points different than their own in an effort to de-escalate tension and pave the way for more peaceful dialogue.