“A thousand people in the street,
Singing songs and carrying signs,
Mostly saying, ‘hooray for our side.’”
Fifty years ago, the counterculture movement that would rearrange American society began to light on fire. A war on the other side of the globe affected families in Middle America. Racial strife often pitted police officers against African Americans. A chaotic election year would soon leave the idealistic Bobby Kennedy dead, seemingly along with his idealism. Richard Nixon stepped into the divide, winning the presidency with a campaign promising law and order for everyday Americans. Yet anti-establishment fervor continued invading homes, dividing friends, and challenging – for some good reasons and some bad – the very heart of American society.
Then in 2016, America hit the replay button.
The division we feel today is personal, just as it was in the late 1960s. There is little reason to here discuss the surface causes of division; we are all familiar with the issues. We know that we’re divided. We just don’t always know what to do about it.
I don’t proclaim to have the answers. Actually, all you will find in this article are questions. But they are questions intended to pierce the heart and convict if of any divisive desire within. After all, America itself is not divided, but we the people who live in it are. If we wish to heal our country’s political division, we must look inward and recognize that part of the problem may well be our own motivations for speaking out.
Healing will not come from politicians or political commentators but from reforming how we go about discussion and disagreement. Before entering into a politically divisive conversation, here are three key questions to consider. They’re written in the first person, because we all need to ask them honestly, myself very much included.
1. Are my intentions loving?
If my motivation for talking about politics is not rooted in love for people, then I need to change before I tell people how they ought to behave. Too many passionate young people like myself argue about politics because they see it as a game and they like to win games. Politics isn’t a game. Love for people ought to be my chief motivator for saying what I believe.
Additionally, loving intentions must be spread across the board. If I’m passionate about a cause – say ending abortion – I must be compassionate not only for the sake of lives I think I’m preserving, but for their mothers and the pro-choice people I’m criticizing, too. I should not defend one person out of love and attack another out of hate. “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14).
2. Will my words be helpful?
Everyone wants to say his or her piece. But if I know my words will only divide people, then I should keep them to myself. Helping people see a new perspective takes time, compassion and kind words. Freedom of speech means that I can be a politically incorrect jerk if I want, but that would be totally counterproductive if I actually care about helping people see my perspective. If a political conversation doesn’t enlighten either party or bring them closer together, it’s probably unhelpful. If it’s filled with cheap jabs at the other side, it’s definitely unhelpful. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
3. Will my words promote what I believe in?
Opposing what we disagree with is easy. Promoting an alternative can be much more difficult, but it’s necessary; otherwise we’ll become entirely defined by what we oppose. With regard to America’s current political situation, I’ve often said that if we forget that we deserve better, then we don’t. If I only ever talk about how bad the present is, then I won’t be very good at helping my country move towards a better future.
Political beliefs, like any beliefs, ought to be founded in love of what is good. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
Asking these questions before entering into a political discussion will make it much more thoughtful and productive. But the difficult part is asking them in the first place. We often don’t want to be honest with ourselves and recognize that in a moment of division, we might be contributing to the divide.
In January of 1967, when the counterculture movement was about to split wide open, Buffalo Springfield released their protest song “For What It’s Worth.” Unlike much political music, its lyrics were careful and self-critical. Instead of urging activists to stand their ground and speak up louder, it encouraged listeners to pause, look around and become aware of their situation. As we approach an uncertain political future in 2017, we need this wisdom more than ever.
Our society is shifting beneath our feet. If we wish to unite rather than to continually divide, we need to become aware of how our words affect other people and only broadcast what’s on our mind when it’s loving, helpful and good.
“I think it’s time we stop,
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?”