By Rebecca Florence Miller
Headlines about billionaire businessman-turned-presidential candidate, Donald Trump, fill our Facebook newsfeeds and dominate the news. His racist remarks, misogynistic jabs, and constant insults seem to have taken over the political discourse, and many of the people in our pews are cheering him on.
How did this happen?
There’s nothing wrong with speaking confrontationally if truth is communicated. But even necessary confrontation should be loving, even sorrowful, not gleeful and domineering. Biblical confrontation should be neighbor-focused, not egocentric.
Jesus was certainly known for delivering strong words, but even his most confrontational words were focused on the wellbeing of his opponents. He said some particularly harsh things to the Pharisees: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt. 23:33).
Still, a few verses later, we see him grieving over Jerusalem. There is none of the self-centered glee in Jesus’s harsh words; instead, there is a broken heart that longs for flourishing and healing: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (vs. 37).
Moreover, we see Jesus giving up his life for his opponents. There is moral certainty in his robust verbal challenge because there is willing self-sacrifice for the sake of the other—even the enemy. This Christ-like way of speaking of hard truths and laying down one’s life is exactly the opposite of what many of our people have begun to cheer on in their politics.
How, then, did getting in a good jab at an opponent become more important for Christians than the biblical exhortation: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6)?
I’m tempted to blame the current caustic discourse on politicians and pundits. But I too have been part of the problem of toxic politics in our country. The sad truth is that pastors and leaders like me have helped pave the way for the popularity of graceless speech.
It’s easy to gain popularity by championing the politics of our congregations, rallying people around a common political enemy. We distribute voting guides to show who’s in and who’s out. We speculate (sometimes jokingly, sometimes not) about which politician might be the Antichrist. National Day of Prayer rallies become times to champion one particular political party instead of focusing on confessing our own sins. We make little inside jokes about “gays” or “liberals.” We buy into conspiracy theories, instead of skeptically questioning them. We exhibit public anger when we don’t get our way politically. We ally ourselves with those who appeal to the lowest common denominator because we need them in order to “win” what we feel is a righteous fight. At least they’re not as bad as the other side, we think.
Sometimes I am tempted to forget that my political opposites are people whom God loves. Recently, I got together with some folks who see things very differently politically than I do. And in the midst of a wonderful conversation, in which we discovered much common ground, I remembered that no person is all one thing. People are a mixture of many different traits, values, and experiences. Someone with whom I may disagree profoundly on one matter may be someone who demonstrates tremendous sacrificial love or wisdom in another context. Even those who spew hateful speech (and do need correction) are people created in God’s image.
Often, I view people on social media—whether politicians, friends, or relatives—one-dimensionally, merely the sum total of their misguided ideas. If I haven’t seen them in person for a while, it’s easy to start regarding them as mascots of “everything that is wrong with America.” What if I remembered that I too am part of what is wrong with America?
Once we acknowledge how we’ve contributed to the problem of ugly discourse in America, how can we begin to be part of the solution?
Confess our sins.
What does 2 Chronicles 7:14 say? “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Not the other guy. My people.
I’m quick to call out other people’s problems before I confess my own. I’m quick to point to my political opponents as the culprits instead of looking inside my own heart. I’m quick to blame a popular Donald Trump and his fans for toxic American politics instead of examining the roots of anger and pride that spring up in my own heart. I want other people to confess their sins, not me.
We have to start leading by example, by examining our hearts and confessing our sins. We have to model what it looks like to be a person who treats other people with humanity and dignity, even when we disagree on important issues. If we are willing to, however imperfectly, humble ourselves and confess our sins, that honest confession may be the most powerful teaching we can give our people.
Reject the Messiah/Antichrist dichotomy.
In his book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat writes:
The two heresies of nationalism have taken turns in the driver’s seat of both political coalitions, giving us messianism from the party in power and apocalypticism from the party out of power, regardless of which party is which.
Douthat is right. The problem lies on both sides of the aisle. In seminary I found myself in liberal Christian circles where the conservative President was compared to Hitler. Later, I found myself in conservative Christian circles where the liberal President was treated the same way. The commonality of the abrasive rhetoric on both sides was striking.
The men and women we elect may want us to buy into their own heroic mythos and a doomsday mentality about their opponents, but they are all just human beings. Every candidate will make some mistakes and do some good. No candidate will be all good or all bad.
We can and should fight for the values in which we believe, but we have great hope no matter the outcome. God is still the King. Earthly leaders—none of them—have more power than he does. And his kingdom is not of this world. And so we will not worship at the altar of politics when we win. Nor will we sink into despondency when we lose. We will do our best to be faithful to God and to love our neighbor every day. We will hope in the glorious new world that God will bring about at the resurrection.
Pray for elected leaders and model respectful speech.
Our first Christian duty is to pray for our leaders (1 Tim. 2:1-2). When we speak of our elected officials, we can be careful to use their titles and not just their last names. We can respect the office, even if we have serious disagreements with the person in it (Rom. 13:1-7). We can refuse to gather more support for ourselves by appealing to the lowest common denominator in our people.
Our manner of speech will influence—both consciously and subconsciously—the kinds of behavior our people allow in their other leaders. If we model disdain and use fighting words, if we model disrespect and easy jabs and conspiracy theories, our people will follow suit. If we model respect, decency, and truth, we help provide a vision for what good leadership looks like.
Look for opportunities to gently nudge those we lead toward more respectful speech. Christians should not throw words around carelessly (Matt. 12:36, Col. 4:6) or bear false witness—even if it serves them politically. Christians should be interested in the truth, not merely information that feeds into our preconceived notions and fears. The way we communicate is as important as the content of our communication.
In our teaching we need to challenge our people to communicate graciously. So often what we say may be true, but communicated in a hostile, caustic way. As church leaders, we all bear some responsibility for the increase in incivility and disrespect in our nation. We can help model courageous, respectful leadership, grounded in love and character. We can be part of the solution to toxic politics, instead of part of the problem.
As we enter into a new political season, let’s not merely be “right” in our positions and beliefs. Let’s communicate truth with grace and light, always remembering that our congregations are watching, and that political opponents are people God loves—just like he loves us.
Rebecca Florence Miller served as a pastor in rural North Dakota and writes for Patheos Evangelical. She is also a freelance writer and editor. This article first appeared in Leadership Journal and is reported here as curated by the GalliReport.