Start by Giving Grace

Grace-filled Political Conversations – Practice #4

By Joseph LaVela

During this election season, our 10 AM Sunday Adult Forum is taking on the topic of how we can bring grace to our political conversations.  How can we as Christians, bring humility, forgiveness and even reconciliation to the one area of our lives that seems the most broken.  Join us as we explore 8 practices that with God’s help, can transform our political conversations into something that might actually bring us closer together, rather than drive us apart.  Click here for more info, or to watch past of future installments

“Reclaiming civility and community depends less on what is happening in the White House and more on what is happening in our own homes, schools, workplaces, places of worship, boardrooms, labs and classrooms. … We have the choice with every word, action, reaction, decision and virtual form of engagement – to reject the vitriolic in favor of the more tempered, benevolent and humane. … We can decide to give the benefit of the doubt … and stay mindful of the promise of redemption.” — Prof. Paula Franzese, Seton Hall Law School

“[W]herever we are, in whatever family, church, city, society, or country, we must take the first step toward a loving, peaceful world by speaking there as we would want the entire world to talk to one another. … Human unity or world divisions begin with what I say to people and about them. … ‘Love thy neighbor’ is, in the end, all about what I say to the rest of the world and how I say it.” — Joan Chittister, OSB, Radical Spirit

The first four chapters of I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening) – A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations reviewed four self-examination practices to help us better clarify our beliefs and values, to prepare us to engage in grace-filled political conversations.  Beginning with Chapter 5, the authors review steps we can then take to reconnect with those who do not share our political views, as neighbors, not as foes.  And that sort of grace-filled engagement starts, they say, by (no surprise here) giving grace.

Our political dialogue is diseased, the authors posit, and the cause of that sickness is a grace deficiency.  In this context, “grace” means:

  • infusing our discussions with kindness and respect for no reason other than to uphold the dignity of our fellow human beings;
  • extending to even our most strident political adversaries the same unmerited love that God extends to all of us;
  • recognizing the worthiness of every person we encounter.

Expanding on that last point, the point is that everyone matters. America wouldn’t be complete without all of us.  Indeed, our diversity of perspectives is part of what makes the American experience beautiful.

To give grace to others, we first need to give grace to ourselves by believing in our own value and worthiness.  Once we recognize that our own views count, that our participation contributes something that matters, then we are better able to accept that that is true of our neighbors as well.

One symptom of our grace deficiency is the way we speak of our politicians.  “Too often,” the authors say, “we view politicians as villainous creatures instead of our fellow citizens.”    .  How often have we heard someone refer to even their chosen candidate as the “lesser of two evils”?  Politicians are people and as such are worthy of our respect.   They serve at great personal cost and risk.  They give up much of the freedom the rest of us take for granted to go about our daily business anonymously, because everything they do is under constant scrutiny.  They and their families are ridiculed, their children sometimes bullied.  Giving grace to politicians means remembering that they are people, too, and acknowledging that public service has costs.

The most glaring symptom of our grace deficiency, though, is the way we treat each other.  And the main manifestation of this is distrusting the motives of those who disagree with us.  Instead of believing that persons who disagree with us are well-meaning people who simply have come to different conclusions than ours, we explain the difference by ascribing evil motives to them.  Progressives will say conservatives hold the views they do on the social safety net because they hate poor people.  Pro-choice voters are accused of wanting to kill babies.  When we brand those who disagree with us as nefarious, the conflict becomes our identity.  We can’t evolve our own thinking on an issue – because that would mean going over to the dark side.

This focus on conflict has given us an “unhealthy obsession with false equivalency”.  If everything is about the conflict between “my side” and “your side”, then every point has to have a counterpoint, creating the impression that every side is equally valid.  But giving grace, the authors explain, does not mean having to recognize all positions as valid.  Grace means all people are valuable; their opinions may or may not be.  We can vehemently oppose the positions of the people across the aisle and still respect them as people.  “Grace isn’t rolling over or acquiescing to those how have completely different values than we do,” the authors explain, “[i]t is simply seeing our shared connections and acknowledging each other’s human dignity.

But how do we move to a kind of engagement with others that might actually yield evolved positions that at least recognize the nuances of the challenges confronting us and in which we might perhaps find common ground?  Well, the authors say, it is NOT by debating our respective positions with someone who views differ from ours.   A debate format is inherently flawed, they say, because when the discussion starts with each party declaring its position, we are from the start wedded to our positions, our focus remains on the conflict, and we never have grace to uncover our shared values.

Instead, start with grace. Recognize from the start the we owe each other respect and that we are almost certain to share at least some, if not many, of the same fundamental values.  Identify shared goals, and discuss the merits of the various ways in which they might be achieved.  Do not doubt the other’s motives.  Give the other person the benefit of the doubt, and do not pounce on the first sign of weakness in their position.  Meet people where they are without expecting them to change.  Grace, the authors say, means that people do not have to “comply with our worldview in order to be worthy of sharing our world.”

We are stewards of God’s grace.  Act responsibly with it.  And, as with good stewardship generally, we gain by what we give:  When we give grace to others, we get to see our own positions with a realistic sense of our own flawed impermanence, and accept that we may have gotten some things wrong along the way.  Giving grace to others, in short, enables our own growth.

Reflection questions:

  1. Which of our relationships suffer a grace decifit?  With whom among our friends and family do we have difficulty discussing political issues with grace?
  2. Which politician(s) trigger(s) our anger and frustration?  What would it be like to extend grace to him or her?
  3. When have we gotten an issue wrong?  Can we give ourselves grace enough to admit that and still feel that we deserve to be part of the bigger discourse?

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