Good Conversations on Polarizing Political Issues

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The pre-classis workshop on the relationship of the church to justice finished. Delegates had been fully engaged in the discussion and supportive of the speaker’s perspective. But as they relaxed over coffee, a question quietly rippled through the small groups. How could any congregation engage in these conversations at all?  

Today’s divisive political environment has seeped into congregations to such as point that most churches and their members avoid talking about God’s call to “do justice.” The divides are much deeper than individual opinions; various positions have taken on the aura of truth, at least according to their adherents.  

So how does the church create a safe environment for difficult discussions of both a political and a non-political nature? What guidance is available for ensuring that opinions are constructively aired?

For those questing for help in this area, some of the following links might provide useful group discussion materials for church groups. Others offer more structured processes for modeling and creating alternative discussion venues.  

  1. An interesting article in an unexpected magazine reminds us that the church has unique opportunities to be the place for civil conversation to happen especially in today’s divided culture. “Breaking Faith” by Peter Beinart analyzes this possibility in the April 2017 issue of Atlantic Monthly. Check it out here
  2. The Banner reported on specialized training for spiritual conversation used by a church in Washington. Training for that kind of respectful conversation was available through Vitality Pathways. The article contains links to QPlace and Vitality Pathway's websites for those interested in exploring further, click here
  3. A short article on the use of conversations through social media can be found on the website of In All Things. Entitled “We Need To Talk,” Neal DeRoo uses actual media quotes from a Christian college setting to show what has become accepted and suggests why, from a Biblical perspective, such communications are dishonoring. Read the article here
  4. Looking for a short blog piece with some good advice on how to talk about politics? Check out Shannon’s piece entitled “How to Have Respectful Conversations about Politics” on her Of The Hearthblog. There you will find the basics for keeping even a short, casual conversation within the bounds of civility.
  5. A first-rate and readable book on the topic comes from Richard Mouw. Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World acknowledges that it is not easy to hold to Christian convictions and treat sometimes vindictive opponents with civility and decency. He presents very helpful insights about what Christians can appreciate about pluralism, the theological basis for civility, and how Christians can communicate with people who disagree with them on critical issues. Order here through Hearts and Minds Bookstore. 
  6. Need something more in depth and structured for group learning? Colossians Forum provides training and curricula for discussion around various hard issues. To quote its mission statement, “The Colossian Forum equips leaders to transform polarizing cultural conflicts into opportunities for growth and witness. Our vision: Christian communities that behave like Christ.” Explore the website for helpful videos and stories about how this organization embodies that vision.
  7. A Respectful Conversations website has been created by Harold Heie to model respectful conversations among Christian who disagree about controversial issues. The format for each topic has two Christians who have opposing views on a "Leading Question" engage in give-and-take in an attempt to uncover common ground and illuminate remaining disagreements in order to facilitate ongoing conversation. To check out the archive of conversations, visit the website
  8. Not enough time to read through all the samples in Harold Heie’s website? Find some of his ideas in short form here
  9. When the debate over the Marriage Amendment resulted, the Minnesota Council of Churches decided to train and host respectful conversations on the topic. Their intention was not to promote a perspective on the issue but to host discussions that respect differing opinions. The link to the results of their experiment is an insightful report that can be downloaded here.  
  10. Not only does The Center for Public Justice develop thoughtfully biblical positions on various “hard issues,” it also encourages fellow Christians to have respectful conversations about them. For example, check out Let’s Talk Politics by Clay Cooke.

Finding other resources that might help to create good conversations on polarizing issues? Share them with the rest of us in the comments below. . . 

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A great book on the topic of having good conversations around faith, politics, and the intersection of faith and politics is David Dark's, "The Gospel According to America". Bad title (in my opinion) but a truly great book.

This is a neat resource list. Thank you for compiling them. I have some additional perspective on number 9:

The Minnesota Council of Churches' Respectful Conversations have reached 7,000 people in over 300 conversations since the program began in 2012. The easy majority of these conversations have been held in congregations seeking to depolarize a conflict within the community or in their broader mission field. Churches have used them to train members in discipleship practices of listening with love as well as to be sources of peace blessing their broader communities. Over 68% of participants report more empahty for those with whom they disagree, and level II evaluations indicate lasting change in people's ability to listen, to be curious about perspectives they do not share, and to be in relationship with others with whom they disagree.

In addition to being employed by churches, denominational bodies have also undertaken Respectful Conversations. These include an assembly of 600 UCC members engaging the topic of white privilege, two ELCA synods coming together to talk about a divisive energy infrasturcture project impacting both of their mission fields, and 800 UMC delegates discussing a vision of LGBT inclusion. Institutions of higher ed have made also the conversations a mandatory element of freshman orientation in order to better shape classroom discourse and equip students with the tools to engage in dialogue, rather than debate, over their differences.

In the last two years MCC has taken the Respectful Conversations to public schools, training teachers in this model for classroom engagement that's been more powerfully needed ever since the 2016 US Presidential campaign. Students have so integrated the practice into their daily lives that they have voluntarily employed it to handle disagreements that occur during recess!

Anyone interested in more information or in training to deliver Respectful Conversations should feel free to go to www.mnchurches.org or reach out to our staff, [email protected]

Just located another article that provides some interesting data and insight, along with links for further information.  Of special interest is the link to Richard Mouw's speech and the description of his concept of "convicted civility".  His speech gives a summary of his thinking on the topic.  Here is the link to the article:

https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/june-web-only/what-psychology-...

 

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Just read this in the Dordt Voice that people might also appreciate: https://voice.dordt.edu/2019/06/07/on-civil-discourse. It asks what our first priority should be in conversations on divisive topics – to be right or to be good?

That's a great tension presently felt across the "civility" world. What is the ultimate objective? There is a way in which holding a Respectful Conversation, or any other "structure" of conversation, on a divisive issue inherently legitmizes the variety of perspectives on a topic. Are there perspectives, such as white supremacy, holocaust denial, or climate change denial, which it is dangerous to legitimize?

The Minnesota Council of Churches' Respectful Conversations are not persuasive tools, group consensus measures, or anything like that. What they do is make you hate your opponent less, help you understand them more, and remain convicted of your own perspective. They achieve empathy and depolarize a conflict.

Sometimes empathy is a necessary step towards something greater; sometimes it is the final step in a community's conflict, and sometimes it is the wrong step in a situation where agitation is more called for than depolarization.

Part of the problem with difficult discussions is an increasing inability to listen to others.  I've recently read a book that focuses on this essential part of conversation:  The Power of Listening:  Building Skills for Mission and Ministry by Lynne Baab.  Each chapter develops another side of our capacity to do real and intentional listening.  For example, a chapter is devoted to listening not to words but to that which is unspoken.  Two chapters focus on listening to God.  And one chapter is called "The Listening Toolbox" to describe ways in which we can develop our personal listening skills while we encourage our conversation partners to talk.  But the book doesn't just give information; each of its chapters concludes with a section called "Questions for Reflection, Journaling, and Group Discussion."  The questions help readers personalize and practice the topic of the chapter and provides excellent ways to take the art of listening into real life.