By Lindsey Abston Painter  |  8 December 2019  |  

Can people who share opposite political views have a relationship? Can I still have a relationship with my parents if they believe differently from me? Or with my friends? My coworkers? 

The internet seems to have unanimously decided that, no, you can’t. Your political views reveal your values—and how can you have any kind of relationship with people who don’t share your basic values? 

Today in both the church and the larger political arena, we have been taught two lies. The first lie is that these issues are simple and easy to fix. The second lie is that listening to and trying to understand someone who believes differently from you is a betrayal of your values.

We use a lot of war metaphors when we talk about politics in the church, or politics in the world. You’ve heard them. We must fight the other side. There are winners and losers.

I wish, instead of war metaphors, we would try to use relationship metaphors more often. Living in America is more like a relationship than a war. We live together, the left and the right. We worship together, we raise children together, we eat together, we make decisions about how to make our “neighborhood” better. 

When you’re in relationship with someone, like a brother or a coworker, you learn early on (if you’re smart) that some arguments will never be resolved. You will never agree 100% on everything. And that what frustrates you now will frustrate you 5, 10, 15 years from now. So it is with national (and church) politics. The answer isn’t cutting people off, or resolution. The answer is a lifetime of trying to listen, and trying to be understood.

Listening

But relationships can’t work if neither side is willing to listen and understand. Relationships can’t work if both sides are too busy throwing darts and holding up their shields. Relationships can’t work if both sides continue to believe their answer is the only answer and refuse to even try to listen for understanding.

I cannot personally claim objectivity. I have strong opinions about the rightness of one side over the other in many areas, including national politics and church policies. I don’t believe becoming a centrist is the answer to all problems. Nuance isn’t the same as compromise. I have to put this disclaimer in my articles because people always comment that I’m biased. Well, yeah. I am. And so are you.

I think of the abortion issue because it’s the perfect example of what happens when two sides are arguing but not listening.

Side 1: This issue is simple. A baby is a baby, and you’re killing it. How can anyone possibly think that’s okay under any circumstances?

Side 2: This issue is simple. A woman should be allowed to make choices about her own body. How can anyone think that isn’t okay under any circumstances?

One side is screaming about babies, the other side is screaming about women. How can we be expected to have a conversation if we aren’t even talking about the same thing? In order to solve this problem, the left has to admit that killing a potential person is a pretty abhorrent thing to do. Maybe the right has a point here. And the right has to admit that there are proven, long-term solutions to abortion already available, but they won’t like them. Comprehensive sex education, cheap and easily available access to birth control, better government programs providing support for working single mothers, access to affordable healthcare, and paid maternity leave, spring to mind. Maybe the left has a point here too.

But we can’t get any of those things done because we’re so busy lobbing verbal darts at one another that we can’t actually accomplish any solutions. And we can’t admit that this issue is more nuanced than one side or another.

Nuance is a funny thing. It isn’t sexy. It doesn’t make people rise up in anger or pride. It doesn’t make you want to share on Facebook, or lift your fist in the air saying, “Yes!” It won’t fill seats at political rallies or make crowds cheer, or jeer. It won’t get people to turn on their 24-hour news cycle. It doesn’t fit in the space of a tweet.

And yet, we cannot hope to move forward as a country without it.

Not Simple at All

As a country, as a denomination, we need to stop pretending these issues are simple. Let’s talk about women’s ordination. An issue both sides claim is simple.

Side 1: Women deserve to be equal. It’s criminal to treat women this way.

Side 2: The Bible is clear on the role of women and men. We are standing up for what we believe in.

Both of those sound simple. But the issue is so complex. I will never claim to be unbiased, nor will I claim I do not fall into the trap of simplifying complex issues. I’m a work in progress. And I fall squarely into Side 1 of the women’s ordination issue. And I have stated so, publicly, on many occasions.

Yet, when we get into it, the issue of women’s ordination is not simple at all. There are issues of power, culture, colonialism, race, church structure, biblical interpretation, gender, history, media, and more! To have a serious conversation about this subject is far from simple. And when we treat it as simple, we not only reduce something very nuanced to a sound bite, but we shut down any hope we had of reaching a reasonable solution with our opposition.

Let’s see what other issues I can think of off the top of my head that deserve more nuance than we have given them.

Poverty. Crime. Police brutality. Israel. The gender pay gap. Racial privilege. Rape culture. Patriarchy. Terrorism. Gun control. Gay rights. Social media. Sex education. Minimum wage. Immigration. Education. The war on drugs.

We have to stop treating these incredibly complicated issues with all the subtlety of WebMD. Not everything is cancer (as WebMD so often predicts). And if you think it might be cancer, go see a real doctor!

Not everything we wrestle with can be solved with the simple answers we prescribe so glibly. Poverty is not likely to be solved solely by raising the minimum wage, nor by giving reign to the free market. We cannot hope to solve our education crisis by either private school vouchers nor by unqualified support of public schools. Surely, at some point in our arguing we must realize that the answers lie somewhere in the nuance.

Working Together?

I saw a graphic recently that showed how often the left and right have worked together in the Senate to draft bills and put forward legislation. Back in the 70’s the map was very interconnected as Democrats and Republicans worked together to reach solutions. As the map worked its way into the 80’s and 90’s the interconnectedness began to separate a little. Slowly, moving into the 2000’s the red and blue dots separated more and more until 2018, when the sides were completely separate, aside from one or two tiny connected lines between the sides. At some point, even among the people we have chosen to represent us, the lie that we must not have nuanced conversations has spread. 

I am not here to argue for compromise. The issue is not always “somewhere in the middle.” There is no middle between white supremacy and equality. Let us banish that thought forever. This is not about compromise. This is about recognizing that we have been seduced into believing that there are simple answers to things we haven’t been able to solve for decades. As long as we continue to shout fruitlessly at one another, we will be unable to actually accomplish anything of substance.

Nuance is messy. And complicated. And not easy to explain. It’s hard to talk about, and easy to dismiss. It’s sometimes boring, and never as satisfying as that perfect tweet. But it can save us.

At this point, it may be the only thing that can.


Lindsey Abston Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie. 

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