by Will Johnston
Abortion. Gun ownership. Immigration. Global warming. Tax cuts. Gender identity. Race relations.
These are critical issues facing our society and our country today, and as such, they are critical issues facing followers of Jesus.
Here’s another one, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, ESV).
You notice that Jesus didn’t say, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love those who agree with you, look like you, act like you, talk like you, vote like you, think like you, and live like you.” If he wanted us to do that, he needn’t have said anything. It’s usually pretty easy to get along with the people who are just like us.
I spent a decade living and working in Washington DC. My career began in the political world before ending up in the pastorate, and during that time I got to know gay Hispanic liberals, white conservatives from the heartland, and African-Americans from the inner-city. I knew wealthy and powerful people, and I knew the down and out. On any given weekend the church I attended (and later joined the staff of) could have elected officials and people who spent the night on a park bench worshipping in the same service.
When you’re digging into life with people, when you’re opening up yourself, and they’re opening up to you, there really aren’t any off-limits topics. And politics are likely to come up.
But as small group members, leaders, and pastors, it’s incumbent on us to remember that Jesus’ command was not for us to hold a particular perspective on a given issue or to vote for a particular political party but rather to love one another. And as important as all of those issues mentioned above might be, they’re not as important as Jesus’ command to love.
Here are a few ways we can show love to one another when political conversations arise at small group… or family gatherings, workplace lunches, and social outings for that matter.
There are people who love Jesus on just about every side of a given issue and certainly in both major political parties. So don’t assume that everyone else in your group agrees with your perspective. Avoid comments like, “I’m just praising God that so-and-so is our next Senator.” or “Maybe now we can finally get that law overturned.” Statements like this tend to cause people who disagree to either lash out or to seethe silently.
In the first statement, you’re assuming your will is God’s will regarding a particular candidate, and most of the time it takes a whole lot of pride to presume to know exactly what God’s preferred election outcome is.
In the second statement you’re assuming that the others in the group agree with you that a particular law should be overturned. They may have a totally different perspective. At the worst, you can make people feel like they’re not welcome in the group because they don’t agree with you.
I’ve got a couple of good friends whose political perspectives have changed somewhat significantly over the past several years, and my own have shifted a bit as well.
In no case were these changes brought about because someone berated or belittled us. They didn’t happen because someone told us we were defying God or that all good Christians think a particular way about a particular issue.
If you want to change someone’s mind, a full frontal assault is rarely productive. When you’re offensive, it makes people defensive.
Participants in a debate have one goal in mind: to win. The audience might watch a debate to gain perspective on an issue or learn about candidates, but the debate participants are rarely trying to get to the truth. They’re trying to prove their point, to show that they’re better.
I can often win debates because I’m good at debating. I can know I’m wrong and still win a debate. If you’re having a conversation about politics at small group and your desire to win is greater than your desire to arrive at what is right (even if it means you’re wrong), then you’re not doing a very good job of loving the other people in your small group.
Rather than assume others agree with you, make space for them to disagree with you. Say things like, “I know some of you may disagree with me on this, but I think this law is going to make our city a better place in three particular ways…” That’s a rational and reasonable statement, and you’ve opened up the conversation for others to disagree rationally and reasonably.
Do ask questions.
Questions are far more powerful than statements. When someone expresses a political view you disagree with, you can say, “I think you’re wrong, and here are three reasons why.” Or you can say, “That’s interesting. Why do you think that?”
The first puts the person on the defensive. The second opens them up. In listening to their reasons, you might actually learn something you didn’t know or have your own perspective changed. If not, others will likely be more open to your opinion since you’ve been willing to listen first. You’ll also be able to make a better case for your perspective if you know more about their reasoning.
Don’t be afraid of political conversations, and don’t feel like you need to avoid disagreeing with someone in the group. Just be sure to disagree without being disagreeable. We all have rough edges, and part of how those get smoothed down is when others lovingly engage with us.
Let us keep the words of Jesus, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” in mind in the midst of all of our conversations, because as critical as any particular political issue or race may be, none is as important as Jesus’ command to love.
Will Johnston is the Director of Build Community at Eastside Community Church in Anaheim, California. Will graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in theology, did a two-and-a-half year stint on Capitol Hill, and then joined the staff of National Community Church in Washington D.C., where he oversaw small groups.