Relational Wisdom for a Political Season

by David May

Politics is a year-round sport, but the season is intensifying with the coming of the 2020 Presidential election.  With it, relationships between family members, friends, and strangers will become more contentious, strained, and precarious.  It doesn’t take a prophet or the son or daughter of a prophet to see what is coming—a tsunami of conflicts between individuals of different political perspectives.  Often these conflicts are exacerbated by a deluge of unflattering visual images, provocative soundbites, and caustic memes that flood Facebook, Instagram, and other social media. So, in this political season, is there Christian wisdom available for the survival of interpersonal relationships?

Words to Live By

Folks who at least nominally want to portray themselves as Christian in their relationships frequently turn towards the Bible for inspiration and guidance.  The Bible is a reasonable place to search for such wisdom since it is replete with stories about interpersonal relationships between family members, tribes, enemies, and especially between God and humanity.  Of course, as Samuel Sandmel notes, “More people praise the Bible than read it.  More read it than understand it, and more understand it than conscientiously follow it” (The Hebrew Scriptures, p. 3).  Nevertheless, the Bible does provide wise counsel on how one can approach interpersonal relationships, and perhaps no passage is so oft quoted or better known than  “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31, NRSV).

This passage, the Golden Rule, speaks about empathy as an approach for personal relationships.  Former news person Dan Rather captured the essence of empathy in his book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism.  He described his own hardscrabble upbringing in Texas during the Great Depression of the 1930s and how his family at Christmas, even with their own meager existence, would give to others.  On one occasion, he writes, “. . . I asked my mother why we gave those families gifts at Christmas when we ourselves didn’t have much. I remember then answering for myself: ‘It was because we felt sorry for them, right?’  ‘We do not feel sorry for them,’ my mother said sternly. ‘We understand how they feel’” (p. 95). That’s a good definition of empathy, understanding how another feels.  In the biblical concept of incarnation, it’s the very reason Jesus walked among us.  So, cultivating empathy for another is a way of pouring oil on the troubled waters caused by political disagreements. But here’s the rub: In today’s politically charged climate, empathy is probably not going to work.  The Golden Rule has become tarnished, and here’s why.

Empathy Tarnished

In a fascinating study on empathy that has been going on for decades, researchers have shown empathy is on the decline.  Between 2000 and 2009 alone, it declined 40%. While empathy is declining, of course it’s not going away, but even the way empathy is practiced today is troubling in itself.  Researchers discovered a trend, one we all have intuited: namely, empathy can be selective.  So today, empathy might be extended for my team, my political party, my candidate, my agenda, but not yours.  In fact, I will become righteously indignant when you “hurt” my fill-in-the-blank, but I could care less about your fill-in-the-blank.  It’s the dark side of empathy.  It’s the type of empathy Jesus warned about, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:33).

So, if the guiding words of Jesus are failing to be heard or are being twisted, where does this leave us?  November 3 is coming.

Empathy Renewed

Perhaps we need a reboot to one of humanity’s most basic operating systems for engagement of interpersonal relationships.  It’s biblical, universal, and simple with no complicated ethical theory of communication or interactions.  It’s a modest and unpretentious moral form of guidance for both Christians and non-Christians in this political season: “Be kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32a).

Be kind to one to another.  That’s it.  Be kind.  It seems a little Pollyannaish and a bit simplistic, but one must admit, it’s not an approach that needs lengthy explanation to even the most vitriolic spewer of venom.  You can’t really confuse and obfuscate the imperative to “be kind.”  Expressing kindness in all relationships does not mean one has to agree on political agendas related to life/choice, immigration, guns, race, or a host of other issues.  And one does not have to give up his or her sincerely held political perspectives to be kind both in words and acts. Kindness is a type of bedrock that can allow for the possibility that conflictual “you vs. me” relationships might, in the words of Martin Buber, become loving “I-thou” relationships.

Mark Twain once wrote “Do the right thing.  It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”  In today’s political climate, and with respect to Twain, perhaps we can enter the political season with the thought, “Be kind.  It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.” We invite readers to submit perspectives of their own to ghunt@cbts.edu for possible inclusion in the blog series.

David M. May, Ph.D. is the Landreneau Guillory Chair of Biblical Studies, Professor of New Testament and the Director of the Master of Arts (Theological Studies) program.  He has taught at Central Seminary since 1994.

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