Worlds Apart: Maintaining Personal Relationships as Political Opposites

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Photo credit: AP

This election cycle has been characterized by an unprecedented amount of polarizing discourse and outright hostility. There are strong feelings of alarm and moral outrage on both sides of the political divide. Many have reported getting into a fight with a friend or family member over the election.

From the perspective of relationship experts, the turn our political discourse has taken this election can be seen as a case-book example of exactly how not to speak if you value your personal relationships. Marriage researcher and therapist John Gottman famously identified four styles of interpersonal communication that his studies revealed as key predictors for divorce, ominously dubbing them the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” They are criticism (of a person, rather than a behavior), contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, and of the four, contempt has been found to be the greatest predictor of divorce.

As examples of contempt, the Gottman Institute lists “sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eyerolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor.” That kind of contempt is plain to see in one particular Presidential candidate who frequently calls people invectives like “disgusting” and “pigs.” But that spirit of contempt has spilled over into how people commonly characterize those on the other side of the political fence as well. It’s easy to see why speaking to your spouse with that kind of ugly animosity would not be good for a marriage. At the same time, this begs the question of how you can speak with a loved one when you find their political views deeply troubling and hurtful.

For some, the best policy seems to be avoiding the topic altogether. This is a matter of setting healthy boundaries that both respect, with the aim of setting aside these differences for the good of the relationship. Talking through these differences is a lot harder, and requires a good deal of moral maturity on the part of both partners. Those who do not possess that maturity, sensitivity, and sophisticated communication skills may need to go with the wisdom of “don’t try this at home.”

For those who do want to venture into talking about these things with a loved one who is a political opposite, it’s critical to be able to speak in a way that is not condemning, disrespectful, or degrading. That is not a matter of agreeing on the issues, but on how you speak with each other, even when there is strong disagreement. When we feel anger or anxiety – two strong feelings that this election has brought up in many people – our brains go into alarm-mode, making us cling to our beliefs, doubling-down on them, shutting ourselves off to the other.

The antidote to this is creating an environment of respect, where you both feel socially safe and connected. A debate is not a place where the two parties change their views, it is an atmosphere where each side becomes all the more entrenched and polarized. Change can only happen in an atmosphere where both feel safe, respected, valued, understood. That entails how you speak with each other, but it also will likely mean at first that you need to get behind the issues, and seek to understand the vulnerable feelings (such as feeling threatened, wronged, or afraid) behind them. In other words, you genuinely try to understand the other, while also expressing how you feel.

That’s hard to do, because it means both of you managing your reactivity. However, if the goal is to come together, if the goal is to resolve conflict... and even if the goal is to win over the other, the only way to get there is through this type of vulnerable and respectful dialog. If one instead has a diet of rage, resentment and contempt fed to them through their favorite liberal or conservative news outlet, the result will be a continued polarization – moving further and further away, fostering fear, anger, and otherizing.

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Jacob Hall Dies

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Like many have been, I've been praying together with my daughter every night for little Jacob Hall, since I heard the six-year-old boy had been shot in the leg by a teenager on a shooting spree, and was reported to be in critical condition in the hospital. 

Jacob died today, surrounded by his family at Greenville Health System Children’s Hospital. The following is a statement issued by his parents, Renae and Rodger Hall,
“Jacob came into our lives six years and four months ago and changed it completely. He showed us how to love, laugh and smile even on days we did not want to. God gave him to us and he was taken away from us by a senseless act.

We know that Jacob has already forgiven this child for what he did to him and his family because that's the kind of child he was. Jacob was sent to this earth for this short a period of time to show us that there is such a thing as pure love. Jacob is in heaven with God now and everyone who loves him. Words cannot express how much we will miss him.” 


I want to follow the example of Jacob and his parents, and hold on to pure love and forgiveness in the middle of a world that is filled with hurt and injustice. But right now I'm just feeling really sad. Goodbye Jacob.

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Losing My Faith... In The Police

Saturday, September 24, 2016

I used to be a big fan of the police. I grew up watching Adam-12 on TV and had that image of the police instilled in my head. I saw cops as the heroes, the good guys, those who were there to "serve and protect."

I used to think that if there was a problem you could call 911 for help. But now I have to first ask myself beforehand "Will this make things worse if I call? Will it escalate the situation and cause harm, even possibly resulting in killing?" For example, if I see a homeless guy acting erratic -- so that I am concerned that he may be a danger to himself or others -- I would want to be able to call the police, believing that they would send someone who is trained in how to help him and keep him safe. Instead I need to consider the possibility that the police may come and kill him on the street. That is not hypothetical. It has become almost a common occurrence that the mentally ill are killed by police, rather than helped. 

So while I began with a positive "Adam-12 view" of the police as a kid, and carried that view into adulthood, that view has changed. The reason it has changed is primarily because the prevalence of cel phone cameras and social media has allowed me, as a middle class white guy, to see and understand the experiences of people of color and the very different way they experience the police. So while one can indeed trace a trend of the police becoming increasingly militaristic, a big part is also simply me being able to see the reality those less privileged than I have experienced for a long time. So Adam-12 is not something that belongs to the past, but is more a picture of what the police ought to be like.

Police ought to be there to make things better, safer, and just. However, rather than using techniques to deescalate a situation, police commonly escalate situations, making things unsafe and often deadly. They make things worse, and because of that, I hesitate to call. I used to think that the police were there to help. Now I think of them as dangerous, unsafe, and incompetent. Incompetent when it comes to knowing how to deescalate a dangerous situation. Instead they escalate. 

Now let me stress that I am not a pacifist. If I felt that I was in danger, say if there was someone trying to break into my home, I would definitely call the police, and would be glad that they had guns with them. That is the extreme situation. But there are lots of other situations where that military approach is completely unnecessary and wrong. For example with killing mentally ill people, rather than helping them. 

So while I used to trust the police, I find that all the stories of them killing the mentally ill, and killing people of color -- and doing so with complete impunity -- has eroded that trust. In its place is mistrust. I have come to see the police like I would see an occupying military force. I experience them as a danger. I fear them. In an emergency I would still call 911, but I always have to ask myself if doing so would make things worse, and often don't call because of this. 

When I think about how resistant police unions have been to reform in these areas -- including resisting training proposed by the DOJ to teach police how to deal with implicit bias, provide tools for deescalation that keep both officers and citizens safer, and focus on "community policing," rather than seeing citizens antagonistically as "bad guys" and threats -- it becomes abundantly clear that this is not simply a matter of a few bad apples, but is a systemic problem with deep roots in the culture of the police force. That police culture, rather than learning from these insights, has become increasingly militaristic, antagonistic, and dangerous, resisting any kind of reform or education. If you speak out for reform, whether from within the police or from without, you will be labeled as anti-blue.

In many ways this loss of trust in the police parallels people's experience of losing their faith. Just as the Catholic church acted as an institution to cover-up scandal and wrongdoing in the church, the police unions also seek to block reform. Just as abuse from a priest erodes our trust in religion, the deadly and inhumane actions of the police erodes our trust in the law and in our legal system. Finally, just as I am sure there are plenty of good and loving people sitting in the pews and behind the pulpits of churches, I am also sure that there are plenty of good cops out there, too. That being the case however does not help the very real systemic problem that perpetuates a culture of militaristic violence in the police force and resists any kind of meaningful reform.

So I find myself in the same place with the police as I do with my faith. I still consider myself a Christian and believe in the way of Jesus, but I need to constantly stress that I do not support -- and in fact am profoundly morally opposed to -- what conservative evangelicals support. Similarly, I still believe in the police of Adam-12; I believe that they could be good. I hope we can get to that. Not in a naive-childish way (the show was admittedly pretty naive), but in a deep, realistic and grown-up way. However that means repentance, and not just the repentance as individuals (which while important, can function as a scapegoat for the system), but also the repentance and reform of the system, too. That is the only way to get to real justice.

We are a long way from that. At best we are, I am, at a place of seeing the sin of the system. Just as I have come to see the sin of my faith, I also have come to see the sin of my country's criminal justice system. That is hard to face, but it's important to face, and I am grateful to Black Lives Matter and others for shining a light on this. It would be easy to disassociate myself from both my faith and the police, to see myself as good and "them" as bad. But I want to try to own it. This is my faith, my country, and it is profoundly broken and in need of reform.

P.S. If you would like some ideas of what that reform could look like, here is a good place to start.

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You Found Me, Just a Little Late

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Lost and insecure, 
You found me, You found me.
Lying on the floor, 
Surrounded, surrounded.
Why'd you have to wait?
Where were you? Where were you?
Just a little late,
You found me, you found me.
-The Fray



That song captures the complex mix of closeness and nearness, of intimacy and pain, that we all know from our experience of God in this world. We hear the same kind of thing in the Psalms, oscillating from passionate cries of abandonment, "Why have you forsaken me?" "How long Lord?" to expressions of tenderness "Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely." Music, including the Psalms, and including this song by the Fray is often able to capture these kinds of contradictions of life that we all know and live with much better than our theologies or philosophies can.

In part, this is due to the motivation behind what we write. Often when I write theology I am trying to say something helpful, trying to build trust, encourage growth, and so on. That's a good place to come from, I'm trying to help and to do good. But I will never forget the time that a person said to me, "When you speak of a relationship with with God, it sounds so close and intimate. It sounds so simple and easy. But in my experience there is a lot of struggle and doubt. I often feel that God is far away." Now, that was actually my experience too. Sometimes I felt God's nearness, and it felt like home. Those experiences have forever changed me. But I also know the experience of utter darkness, feeling that I am alone in the universe, feeling that the whole thing is just wishful thinking. Yet I had apparently given the false impression that I don't.

An artist writes from a different place. Art is at its best when it does not try to have a message (even a noble and good message), but simply speaks vulnerably and honestly. When it does this, it touches something in us that recognizes the same experiences and feelings, touching and moving us. That's why it so important that we let art and music and story impact our theology. Because when we do that we are letting our theology connect with the reality of our experience.

It takes a lot of courage to sing/pray "You found me... just a little late." It's an expression of grateful devotion coupled with an accusation born from pain. It would be a lot easier to just express one or the other, either tenderness or complaint. To express both at the same time leaves us wide open and vulnerable.

Jesus described God as a loving father. If we ask for good things, our good heavenly Father will surely give them to us. "Knock and the door will be opened" Jesus tells us (Lk 11:9). But the story Jesus tells us right before that verse is of a person in need, banging on a locked door in the middle of the night (Lk 11:5-8). Jesus tells a similar story of how prayer is like knocking on the door of a unjust judge who doesn't care (Lk 18:108). Sometimes prayer feels like falling into the arms of our daddy, and other times it feels more like we're pounding our fist on a locked door of a judge who doesn't care.

In the end I think we find the answer to the question of theodicy -- the question of how God can be love when there is so much pain and wrong in the world -- not in finding an explanation, but in learning to walk in the tension of our experience of good and bad, intimacy and abandonment, love and darkness. I don't even want to say that this vacillating experience is how it needs to be, that is healthy and good, but simply that it is how we experience life and God. It's not just you. If we have the courage to be honest, we find that it's what we all experience.

Most of the time I feel like an atheist, and then there are the days when I'm born again, like the heavens have opened up. I long for those days. My heart is wide open to you, Jesus. Lying on the floor, surrounded, you found me.

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