How to Engage Your Political Enemies

April 25, 2021
Sermon by Rich Tafel

This past week I joined my fellow ministers in our denomination for a day to check-in with each other and offer support. One issue raised were ministers sharing concerns that political divisions among members were ripping families and congregations apart.

Also, this week a study came out that showed divisions among Americans politically are now more similar to battles between religious groups around the world, primarily, in the Middle East The report concluded in our country, “It’s the antagonistic feelings between the groups, more than differences over ideas, that drives sectarian conflict.”

I’m sure you’ve experienced this. We no longer disagree with our political opponents by saying, “Well, I disagree with you on these issues, but I still respect you.” Instead, we see political opponents as evil–the enemy. I still find it stunning the fact that parents today are more concerned that their kids will marry someone of a different political party over all other categories replacing race and religion. We’ve made strides on race and sexual orientation, but the political identity divisions our worse than ever.

No longer do we say, I lost this election, but I’ll fight hard to come back and win again. Instead, we declare the results of elections as fraudulent when our side loses. Democracy only works when one side agrees to concede, and we are losing that in America. Instead, each election becomes a battle of good versus evil leading us to dehumanize our opposition, which we know historically is the path toward violence.

Free speech and thought are also at risk. If my enemy is evil, there’s no point in offering them free speech. I need to work with my tribe to shut down the other side. Opposing sides feel silenced and a vicious cycle continues.

We don’t really know each other anymore. A study by the group “More in Common” found three surprising categories of people who hold distorted views of the other side. The first is partisanship, the more partisan you are on the left or right the more distorted your views of the other side. And, the more media you watch the more distorted your views of the other side are. And, a real surprise to some, the more formal education progressives have the more distorted are your views of the other side, while the same is true of Republicans without a HS education.

That means that the old virtues of being getting very politically involved, watching the news and getting an education appear to work against you having an accurate picture of those you disagree with. Democrats with a graduate degree and Republicans without a HS degree both ranked worst of holding accurate views of the other party.

I believe this misperception of each other is the most important issue of our time and leads to demonization. Politics is the arena where conflict is addressed peacefully. When it breaks down we will devolve toward hatred that leads to violence.

Don’t get me wrong a political view is great. Fighting for your cause is wonderful. But hating those you disagree with is unchristian.

Christians have a unique responsibility when it comes to finding peaceful solutions. We follow a teacher who told us not to judge others but to be aware of our own sin first and to refrain from throwing stones at others. Jesus commands us to forgive others. If that’s not hard enough, we are instructed to love our enemies.

Swedenborg in his insight teaches that God loves diversity and each new different person who joins heaven makes it more complete.

The wisdom of Jesus offers strategies for us to engage with our political enemies today. What can we do? How can we do it?

I came up with eight suggestions to engage those who you disagree with politically.

We are Created in the Image of God-
Start by reminding yourself that whoever you are looking at was created in the image of God. No matter who they are, God loves them. Paul wrote “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”

Respect that every person is on a spiritual journey. We are so much more than our politics. We must rehumanize those who have not who we voted we want them to.. That person you want to declare as evil shares some very human things in common with you. Maybe it is their love of their spouse, child or grandchild. Maybe it is their pet dog. Maybe they love your football team or your hobby. Look at them in their total humanness, find what makes them special beyond their political affiliation and rehumanize them.

Practice Forgiveness
Recognize from the wisdom of Jesus that we sin, and we offend people daily often without knowing it. We all are a work in progress as are they. We can use our anger as a signal to reflect back on your own shortcomings. None of us are perfect. We all need forgiveness, and we need to forgive others..

Love Your Enemies
As soon as we declare someone our enemy, we must recognize we are commanded to love that person. You can decide if you take Jesus seriously or not. You can’t say you seek to follow Jesus and hate your enemy. You can hate your enemy, but you can’t say you follow Jesus. Remember this is not loving their position or opinion it is loving them.

Practice Empathy
Shaming does not work, instead put yourself in their shoes. If you lived where they lived and grew up as they did and read the news they read and only read their social media, I’m telling you that you would very likely believe what they believe. If you have no idea how others come to their conclusion, try listening to their podcasts, read their books and websites and consider this a spiritual practice.

Become Curious
Hint, I don’t mean start by asking people who they voted for as a first question. Get to know them as people outside of politics. Search hard for some topic where you see their perspective. Most of us disagree on 20%, but that 20% is all we ever hear about. The two parties thrive by talking about sharpening their differences. The media knows those topics drive viewers. Social media is a money machine based on gaining attention through conflict. Fight this urge and look for what you have in common. If you can find something about their politics you agree with, that’s an amazing way to build common ground.

Listen and Repeat
It’s very hard work to really listen to people. Try repeating back to them what you’ve heard. People want to be heard. I’ve done this with people who themselves are so ready to be my opponent, that when I repeat back to them the things they said, they argue with their own words. Eventually, they feel heard. Don’t give up, keep listening.

Embrace Paradox
The spiritual life is a life of paradox which embraces nuance and complexity. Our culture keeps trying to force us into either or binary choices. Don’t take the bait. Embracing paradox means we hold differing views at the same time. Jesus was man and God. Bring heaven to earth. God is love and wisdom. Faith is complex and so is creation. Allow more complexity in your life.

Pick Your Battles
You don’t need to engage in every debate.
I like this advice from radio host Bernard Meltzer “Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.” Hold on to what is your key values and don’t make peace with evil, but if you fight on ever issue you’ll burn out.

Next time you meet a person who is your political enemy, recognize that God has given you a spiritual teacher. Engage them for what they can teach you. This is not easy work. Speaking from my own experience, the ability to follow Jesus on the path of peace making can only be done through the power of the God working in your life. Peace isn’t normal it must be made. The ability to empathize, forgive and place others first, is our spiritual practice over a lifetime. This work requires deep humility and courage. But the world needs it now more than ever.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.